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Faith and Reason

March 30, 2014

Craig Little – Guest Speaker

I’ve been reading two books off and on lately. One is The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. The central tenet of the book can be summarized by a few sentences from the Afterword where he says “For anyone with eyes to see, there can be no doubt that religious faith remains a perpetual source of human conflict. Religion persuades otherwise intelligent men and women to not think, or to think badly, about questions of civilizational importance.”

A review from Publisher’s Weekly says:

Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Historic and modern-day of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. “

It struck me, at first, as a pretty negative book. One that speaks against a lot of things. But it has its bright spots for me, too.

Harris is critical of Christianity for reasons such as the Inquisition, the Crusades and the insertion of Biblical certainty into modern-day politics and policy. Although the book was published in 2004, he would have lots of other examples from current events. He could cite the comments of Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia who was quoted as telling a told a church group in 2012 that evolution and the Big Bang were “lies straight from the pit of hell,” that “the Earth is but about 9,000 years old”. Or the late Fred Phelps, whose Topeka church picketed veteran’s funerals to protest homosexuality in America. I could go on, but we’d all get depressed.

And Harris spends a chapter on Islam and its religious dogma of jihad, with its suicide bombers, and sectarian violence. I won’t go in to detail here.

Suffice it to say that, Harris is sort of against faith of any kind. That is FAITH, in capital letters. Religious faith.

And what he says rings true to many of us, I would guess. The fast-growing number of spiritual, but not religious, people in our culture, show that many no longer relate so well to the stories people used in the past to explain our existence. This includes many of our children.

But, Harris has no problem with what I call faith in small letters. The sort of faith in the statement, “have faith in yourself.” Or the sort of thing that I mean when I say “Things always work out for me.”

And he isn’t against reason. In fact, he’s highly in favor of it. He says “While there is surely an opposition between reason and faith, we ….there is none between reason and love, or reason and spirituality.” In the epilogue has says “Nothing is more sacred than facts. No one, therefore, should win any points in our discourse for deluding himself. The litmus test for reasonableness should be obvious: anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence.”

I found a fascinating blog called Faith Beyond Belief. One blogger pointed out that
“It seems a basic trait of human nature to want to connect with something outside the self. For some of us, immersion in family, community, profession, and hobbies takes us sufficiently outside ourselves to satisfy that need. But others sense the presence of something else – something beyond the material reality that beckons them even farther outside themselves. They sense a numinous connection to others, to nature, to whatever might be our ultimate reality. And they seek a way to express this yearning, a way to practice it and even enhance it.

And this is how our religions got started – not just Christianity, but all the religions the world has ever known. The problem is that each culture tried to express this yearning in terms that made sense for its own people, and that may not immediately make much sense to people outside that culture. In the worst cases, the forms of expression these cultures chose had to be simplified – reduced to something readily understandable to children and sharable with those who did not feel the mystical connection that inspired the religion in the first place. So…the vast, incomprehensible yearnings of highly spiritual people have been reduced to simple stories with magic figures that were supposed to be symbols of the divine.”
And with the reading from Harris this morning, he more or less points out that religion, or spirituality, if not misguided, could create extraordinary experiences.

And I would say that many of us would agree with that sort of thing in our experiences here at Koinonia or elsewhere.

And now for the other book I’ve been reading. This one’s about science.

It’s called the Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power Consciousness, Matter and Miracles by Bruce Lipton. Lipton is a developmental biologist and cell biology researcher who has taught at U Wisconsin and Stanford medical schools among others. While teaching at a medical school in the Caribbean, he came to question the Central Dogma of biology; the premise that genes control life. In his view the major flaw of that thinking is that genes can’t turn themselves on and off. Something in the environment had to trigger the gene’s action.

He says that the world if full of people who fear that their genes will turn on them and they wait for cancer to explode in their lives as it happened in the life of their parents or siblings. Based on that, millions of people attribute their failing health to inadequacies of their body’s biochemical mechanisms, rather than a combination of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual causes.

His research and experiments by others that followed have validated his skepticism that DNA was prime in controlling life. These and other experiments lead to creation of the field of epigenetics, the study of molecular mechanisms by which the environment controls gene activity.

Epigenetics research has shown how the environment in which a cell resides influences the behavior of cells without changing the genetic code within it. This happens because the cell membrane, sort of the skin of the cell, is what Lipton considers to be the brain of each one of our 50 trillion or so cells. Even though the membrane is only 3 10-millionths of an inch thick it has a set of what we might call gates and channels or turnstiles that allow what is known as integral membrane proteins to pass through or not depending on the environment. Insert a toxin into a cell’s environment and it will shrink away and try to avoid it. Insert a nutrient and the cell will approach it. It’s a lot more complicated than I describe it.

Couple these processes with what is continuing to be learned about quantum physics and things get really interesting inside our bodies. I’m kind of a fan of quantum physics, which is the study of the behavior of matter and energy at the molecular, atomic, nuclear, and even smaller microscopic levels. (I don’t understand it, but I’m a fan of it.). The science of quantum physics or quantum mechanics was created in the early 20th century, when it was discovered that the laws that govern macroscopic objects do not function the same in such small realms. In the realm of quantum physics, observing something actually influences the physical processes taking place. Light waves act like particles and particles act like waves. Matter can go from one spot to another without moving through the intervening space (called quantum tunnelling). Information moves instantly across vast distances. In fact, in quantum mechanics we discover that the entire universe is actually a series of probabilities and not of certainties.

Some of the inventions that have come from quantum physics are well known to us: transistors, lasers, atomic clocks. We haven’t quite mastered teleportation and beaming each other around yet, but doctors have learned how to break up kidney stones using wave therapy known as constructive interference mechanics.

It’s clear that living organisms, whether single cells or larger plants or animals, must receive and interpret environmental signals to stay alive. Especially in acute situations, survival of an organism is directly related to the speed and efficiency of signal transfer. The speed of electromagnetic energy signals is 30 billion cm per second, while the speed of a chemical diffusing inside a cell is maybe 1 cm per second. Given what we’ve learned about quantum physics and what is continuing to be learned and how our bodies can react to certain stimuli, it seems likely that quantum processes are at work within us.

Lipton isn’t the only one who suggests that cell and various cellular processes have quantum physical aspects. Other researches are studying topics such as photosynthesis, the process of vision, the sense of smell, or the magnetic orientation of migrant birds.

Lipton tells a story about a young British physician in 1952 who made a mistake. It was a mistake that was to bring short-lived scientific glory to Dr. Albert Mason. Mason tried to treat a fifteen-year-old boy’s warts using hypnosis. Mason and other doctors had successfully used hypnosis to get rid of warts, but this was an especially tough case. The boy’s leathery skin looked more like an elephant’s hide than a human’s, except for his chest, which had normal skin.

Mason’s first hypnosis session focused on one arm. When the boy was in a hypnotic trance, Mason told him that the skin on that arm would heal and turn into healthy, pink skin. When the boy came back a week later, Mason was gratified to see that the arm looked healthy. But when Mason brought the boy to the referring surgeon, who had unsuccessfully tried to help the boy with skin grafts, he learned that he had made a medical error. The surgeon’s eyes were wide with astonishment when he saw the boy’s arm. It was then that he told Mason that the boy was suffering, not from warts, but from a lethal genetic disease called congenital ichthyosis. By reversing the symptoms using “only” the power of the mind, Mason and the boy had accomplished what had until that time been considered impossible. Mason continued the hypnosis sessions, with the stunning result that most of the boy’s skin came to look like the healthy, pink arm after the fist hypnosis session. The boy, who had been mercilessly teased in school because of his grotesque-lookng skin, went on to lead a normal life.

Mason was never able to replicate his success with the boy with other icthyosis patients. He explained decades later that his own beliefs that it would work on warts didn’t carry over to a lethal congenital disease.

Lipton asks “how is it possible that the mind can override genetic programming, as it did in this case?” And how could the doctor’s belief about that treatment affect its outcome? Lipton makes the suggestion that the energy of the mind and the matter of the body are bound just as suggested by quantum physics to suggest that our beliefs and our perceptions can affect our cells and even our bodies.

He gives the example of the placebo effect, which is only slightly taught in medical school. In a study published in the 2002 New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bruce Moseley from Baylor School of Medicine knew that knee surgery helped his patients, but he wanted to know what specific treatment was giving his patients relief. He divided a group of patients into three groups. One one group he shaved the damaged cartilage, on another he flushed out the knee joint to remove material thought to be causing inflammation. The third group got fake surgery in which he made the standard incisions and then pretended that he was conducting real surgery, including splashing saline to simulate the knee washing procedure. He treated all three groups the same after surgery.

He found that, as expected, the groups who received surgery got better. But the placebo group improved just a much as the other two groups. Placebo patients weren’t told for 2 years about the experiment and they continued to show improvement. One man who used a cane prior to his “surgery” played basketball with his grandkids afterwards.

But placebos have another side: nocebos. On a Discovery Channel program in 2003, Dr, Clifton Meador, a Nashville physician, described the power of the nocebo on a patient in 1974. He had diagnosed the man with esophageal cancer, considered at the time to be 100% fatal. The man was treated for the cancer, but Meador and his team knew it would recur. He died a few weeks after the diagnosis. To everyone’s surprise, an autopsy showed a couple of spots on his liver and one in the lung, but none in the esophagus. Certainly not enough cancer to have proved fatal. Meador says that he’s afraid that he removed all the patient’s hope and that led to his early death.

Biology and Belief was written from the viewpoint that the mind is far more powerful for controlling our cellular and bodily responses than most of western medicine would give it credit for. Lipton says that “learning how to harness your mind to promote growth is the secret of life…but it’s not a secret at all. Teachers like Jesus and Buddha have been telling the same story for millennia.”

So, how does Lipton’s book relate to Harris’s? Harris suggested that we should use reason and rely on data, which he called sacred. And Harris admits that we can’t live by reason alone. That when the terrors of the world intrude on our lives: death, illness, grief. But he says that “science will not remain mute on spiritual and ethical questions for long…we can see the first stirrings among psychologists and neuroscientists of what may one day become a genuinely rational approach to these matters.”

Lipton’s insights into beliefs are rooted in data from observations of cloned endothelial cells. He noted that those cells, which he grew in a culture, monitored their world closely and would change their behavior based on information they got from their environment. When he provided nutrients, they gravitated to the nutrients. When he created a toxic environment, they would retreat in an effort to protect themselves. When both growth and toxic materials were introduced they would protect themselves before trying to grow. All very similar to multicellular organisms, like humans.

Lipton describes himself as a spiritual scientist. He says that from his “newly acquired spirituality” his cellular insights serve to emphasize the wisdom of spiritual teachers throughout the ages. In other words, as suggested by Harris he used data and followed it to its conculsions.

At one time it was necessary for scientists to split from what they might have seen as the truth because of the power structure that was the church. Copernicus started changing that when he observed that the earth was not the center of the universe, which was published as he lay dying, so great was his fear of the Inquisition. Nearly 60 years later, a Dominican monk dared to speak out in favor of the Copernican view. He was burned at he stake for his heresy.

We know dogma still exists, but we don’t burn people at the stake anymore. It certainly exists in other cultures. And remember the quotes I shared earlier from various politicians. Clergy can be excommunicated or charged with heresy today, too, for various transgressions.

But dogma and heresy occur in science too. Lipton talks about a draft of his paper to describe how a single-cell’s mind could override it’s body. He wanted to spell out the implications, but his colleagues wouldn’t hear of what they saw as a new age idea independent of the DNA-driven cells. He would also point out that western medicine has is dogma that discounts concepts such as belief, placebo, and nocebo on disease and healing.

I find myself to be a what I might also describe as a spiritual scientist and as a cultural Christian, if not what some might define as a “true” Christian. I think it’s important to continue to look for answers and understandings that lead us away from dogma. That lead us to new understandings, new awareness, and new relationships.

As in the reading this morning from Jesus and Man’s Hope. “Here is a message that has to do with man’s potential perfection…. I would not let this array of values suffer because one element–in view of the present environment–has to be interpreted allegorically or be divested of its pristine meaning and given a different meaning. I agree that the world too badly needs Christianity at it’s best.

And for the to happen all of us, need to be at our best.

Readings:

At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed. Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses or attention – we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream –most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.
- Sam Harris in The End of Faith

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
- Albert Einstein

I think, if I understand right, the issue about the resurrection …. stems from the fact that what was once readily credible is in our environment not credible…. If I were a Christian, I think I would not be dismayed by the idea of resurrection. I think I would [find simple prose] that would say: Here is a message that has to do with man’s potential perfection…. I would not let this array of values suffer because one element–in view of the present environment–has to be interpreted allegorically or be divested of its pristine meaning and given a different meaning. The world too badly needs Christianity at its best
- D. G. Miller and D. Y. Hadidian, editors, Jesus and Man’s Hope, 1971, p. 324].

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