Letter to Peter

Chapter 1: Introduction


Countless perfectly sensible people happily catch flights without a care about what keeps the aeroplane in the sky. Relatively few people wonder about or worry about how planes fly. Religion is similar; many people live fulfilled and moral lives without wasting time worrying about the intellectual basis for their religious beliefs, and I admire them for it.

However, unlike for flight, other people believe religions cannot be true. Some, because they discover a flaw in an explanation given to them in junior school, some for better reasons. Such people raise enough doubt to justify some discussion; and, I guess, when you start university you will find plenty of such discussion around you. Besides, there is something profoundly wrong and dangerous about religion, which these people may sense intuitively or infer from, say, the behaviour of religious extremists. There is also something fundamentally wrong with people, which drives us cautiously toward religion in search of explanation or cure.

I spent quite a while as a student unhappy with conflicting conceptual pictures derived from separate scientific and religious perspectives. I wondered about three questions in turn: First, how, when our every move and every thought is governed by the laws of physics and chemistry can we still be moral, conscious, meaningful people? Secondly, how, when our physical form and instinctive mental characteristics are an evident product of evolution, could we also be God’s creation? Thirdly, why should religions contain important truth when so many aspects of the phenomenon of religions could be explained in terms of the competitive evolution of belief systems through history. After all, viewed as belief systems, religions have often evolved into highly infectious, rather sinister, mind-closing creatures from which many people steer clear.

It took me a while to see the parallel between these three questions and the similarity in their answers. I would like to ensure that, if you ever worry about similar things, it is as comfortable a ride as possible. If, on the other hand, you are already relaxed about these areas of your belief, you should shelve this.

Of course, I could not possibly promise to be able to help, but I will have a go. My success may depend mainly on how well your concerns match the ones I had. This letter is not an attempt to invent a new outlook; it explains what I think is true rather than aiming to be original. The whole discussion is fun, but an important requirement is a preparedness to "abstract" yourself. For example, preparedness to set aside for a moment what you believe, and look, instead, at questions of what beliefs are and how they evolve and propagate amongst people. You will need to drop strong attachments to any particular statements, in a pursuit of truth beyond words. I have still not seen a book that has all the pieces assembled here in the same overall setting; if I had, I would have bought it for you instead. I think there are a number of good ways of looking at these topics. I kick around views I have picked up from around the place in the hope, simply, that I help you find your own perspective.

In what follows, I mention a few interesting books, but I do not summarise them or agree with them all. I do not try to review what everyone thinks, and how their views relate. In this regard, this is not intended to be a landscape map. My aim is to produce more of a route map, (like "Pub Walks in Hampshire") describing one way up to a hilltop viewpoint. You could decide for yourself which way you want to come down. Personally, I think this letter does give a consistent framework to understand the world and religion, but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? I sometimes (but not often enough) am deliberately inaccurate for the sake of simplicity. I try to avoid jargon. Without a doubt, I am sometimes plain wrong.

Although the discussion is dry and abstract, the topics are real topics. Good, evil, disease, death, love, and so on can each have devastating real human consequences. I could discuss tornadoes as abstractly (and possibly as inaccurately too), but this would not change the outcome if one hit my house. Some patterns of human behaviour discussed are linked to horrific atrocities. However, I want to try to avoid strong emotional issues, in order to try to get the line of discussion as rational and unthreatening as possible. Some of my own poems, written as a student and included here, are a bit emotive, but I include them in the happy knowledge that you will mock me for them, in due course! Please therefore consider this paragraph as the only acknowledgement of the realness of the big, bad world.

I believe this letter is consistent with mainstream Christian thought, but is not exclusively Christian. Up until the middle of Chapter 7, I make an effort to distinguish the occasional specifically Christian remarks from the general discussion. Apart from such remarks, I think the general discussion is often as compatible with any other religion or atheism as with Christianity. Equally, many Christians would disagree with much of what I say. As your godfather, I do have a specifically Christian relationship to you, and I do not try to be neutral in regard of choice of religion. Besides, it would be a bit unfair of me to offer summaries of religions for which I have less personal bias. In reality, no one is neutral on these kinds of questions anyway, and it is more honest to have a stated bias than pretend or strive to have none.

My own perspective is flavoured by having gone to a Congregationalist church with my mother until I discovered that my father was an atheist from an elder brother. At the time, it was both expressed as, and seemed like, the ultimate proof of the doubts we all had about this "God story": like discovering Father Christmas didn’t exist. I quickly decided that church was less fun than the alternatives. I lasted with a rather simple atheist view ("I have to go to school chapel just because cavemen didn’t understand the weather") until I was about fifteen. Faced with the realisation I was not as nice a person as I would have liked to be, I made a Christian commitment. Between about fifteen and twenty years old I was a middle of the road "Conservative Evangelical" in the Christian Union, and so on, at University. I drifted away from this with the increasing realisation that the commitment to Conservatism was too often greater than the commitment to truth.

I am still a Christian, but remain extremely sympathetic to the view I had as a child that "church is often less fun than the alternatives" (but I still go). I also still face the realisation I reached at fifteen: that I am not all that I would like to be. Many people I know share a remarkably similar pattern in their religious life, and end up with a similar outlook.

There is a rough logic running through the Chapters:

Chapter 2 looks at how our minds understand the world, how words try to characterise the "real world", and when we consider sentences as true or false. Anyone who has tried to do a computer simulation knows what an impossibly huge data set the real world is. However, we are so used to saying things (data compressing aspects of the world into words) that it is easy to miss what an extraordinary (and flawed) feat of "characterisation" this is, unless you have tried to write pattern recognition software? In Hard Times , Mr Gradgrind is a caricature of someone who thought the world was all about unambiguous "facts"; the book portrays the downfall of that perspective. Few real people have as naive views, but the Chapter explores the limitations of stated "facts" in understanding the world. In both science and religion, reality is always more complex than any number of words.

Chapter 3 looks at scientific descriptions, and both good and bad science. The Chapter begins a central theme by discussing historical competition between different science-style descriptions and perspectives, as science has evolved. The perspectives end up prevailing for a mixture of legitimate and "illegal" reasons. The simplest "illegal" strategy is for a perspective to structure itself so that it can never be contradicted (unfalsifiability). The unfalsifiable belief will then spread by default to fill in the spaces as other theories are eliminated, since people will always seek the comfort of some explanation.

Beliefs which prosper by unfalsifiability are so common that the "Noddy" version of philosophy of science does nothing more than combat this one issue; by trying to insist that all science should progress by successive experimentally testable steps. In reality, such a strict rule would choke progress (as for logical positivism in philosophy). Unfalsifiability is only one issue in the bigger picture of refereeing "illegal" competition between beliefs.

The Chapter then discusses how science can correctly explain the same event in a number of different, parallel ways. The end of the Chapter looks at how picking an inappropriate (but accurate) scientific description can give a "complete" explanation that misses the point of a situation. The risks of "reductionist" approaches to science are explored.

Chapter 4 looks at the "wrong" thing about religion. Even where fixed texts (Bible, Koran etc.) exist, religions undoubtedly evolve, and are partly a product of evolution. Part of this variation comes about legitimately (say, conscious reflection of religious leaders, inspiration, revelation etc.). However, part of the evolution through time is again determined by an unintended statistical process; each micro-belief’s tendency to survive and self-spread. You could think of each religion as competing to survive, but there is also competition between micro-beliefs try to get adopted by a religion (or other belief system), just as in biology genomes compete to get on the gene. A simple process of competitive evolution like this can end up shaping incredibly complex organisms. Here we have a simple process that shapes beliefs and behavioural patterns; competing in the battle for people’s minds (or souls?).

There are lots of examples of beliefs and behaviours which self-spread. With science, it is often sufficient for a belief to be unfalsifiable. Amongst religions, beliefs can actively propagate too. Simplistically, if your belief justifies killing or torturing everyone who disagrees with you, you may find that everyone (left alive) starts agreeing, and the belief will have spread! If some people think the only priority is converting other people to their beliefs, and success is proportional to effort, their beliefs will have an ever-increasing share of the vote (whether they are right or wrong). Belief systems that include as an element that "questioning belief is an evil thing to do" will prosper similarly.

Sometimes the mechanisms are obvious, sometimes they are subtler, interacting with human nature. For example, patterns of behaviour by adherents when someone gives up their religion can often reveal a lot about why others remain. As with the origin of species, it is astonishing how sophisticated the results of this evolutionary mechanism can be. This seems very dry, but if you reflect, you will find a reason for evil and warfare throughout history and today.

Sometimes illegal competition can fashion a completely different set of beliefs/behaviours to those about which a religion was originally centred (most brainwashing cults have their roots in one major religion or another). Then the belief system just becomes any empty parasite preying on humanity.

The other possibility is harder to explain, and I think is best approached via the idea of "dualism". By dualism I just mean the potential for something which looks one thing to be two quite different things interdependent things. Lichens as you probably know are not a plant but always a fungus and an algae living "symbiotically" together; neither the fungus nor the algae is typically capable of living without the other. Here we raise the possibility that religions could be two distinct parts: a whole superstructure of beliefs and behaviours sociologically propagating and some kind of "true" religious kernel. Any religion is bound to develop a superstructure, some may be no more than the superstructure. The kernel and superstructure may be inseparable and in perpetual tension.

The conflict between the core beliefs and an evolving "parallel" belief system is a profound and central part of Christianity. This dualism underlies the conflicts of Jesus versus the Pharisees, of the Prophets versus the Temple, of the Kingdom of God versus the Kingdom of Israel and of Christ versus the anti-Christ. It would be nice if it were simply a matter of correcting for distortion through time and recovering the real religion. However, life is not that easy, the two are so entwined and inter-dependant in places that it is impossible to separate the wheat from the tares. Indeed, without the superstructure, most religions would never have got on our radar screens anyway. It is through the superstructure that many of us enter.

Religions are often "dualistic"; with this inherent conflict embedded. People are "dualistic" too (but not in the sense which Descartes meant, if you come across this). The two parts of people are the conscious being and the evolved animal (co-evolved with society). Without human instincts to survive and procreate, we would not be here either. In brief, what is "wrong" with religion is that to be here, any religion has had to compete and has been deeply shaped in the process.

Chapter 5 looks at what people are; and the way in which we are more than simply a product of evolution or a sack of chemicals. The discussion looks at how people may be responsible for their actions even where a "complete" scientific explanation exists for the same events. The relationships between consciousness, free will, instincts and predictability are explored. The Chapter also looks at what "beings" are and what we might mean if we say we believe God exists. The issue of the value or meaning of people is raised.

Chapters 6 & 7 look at what is wrong with humanity, which is analogous to what is wrong with religion. What is "wrong" with us is that for us to be here at all our genes, our psychological build-up and our society had to be made by, and are still being shaped by, processes of competition. People are a parallel mix of our conscious selves and our natural (social and animal) nature. We are often in tension with our evolved instincts. Most obvious is the need to control our selfish or sexual instincts, but actually we can as often be in conflict with our "guilt feelings". Guilt itself is often one of the strongest instincts we pick up from our upbringing, and comes from the way society has evolved. Our genes, our environment (including disease) and even our psychological build up are heavily influenced by this process of competition through time.

In Christianity, "you must be born again". Our natural selves (the packaging from society’s and our evolution e.g. selfishness or guilt) have to die with Christ and a "new" conscious person has to rise with Christ to replace the evolved communal animal. However, we can no more do this completely now than religions can shed their packaging. The relationship between "us" and our physical bodies has interesting parallels with the relationship between intrinsic religion and its superstructure. Although these ideas are explored in Christian literature and the Bible (read Romans for example), many people who encounter Christianity inevitably only see a self-spreading belief system and miss everything else.

Chapter 8 & 9 look at whether we should adopt a Christian perspective on life. The fundamental nature of Christianity (and, to a degree, Judaism) is presented as a fight between the possibility of something new and the "natural" results of evolution. This fight is in the evolution of the whole religion, where we must participate and find truth for ourselves, whilst avoiding being sucked into an empty belief structure. The same fight is at the level of the individual personality, where we struggle to throw off our "natural flesh" and become something new. The same fight is again at the physical level, where we struggle with other consequences of our evolutionary provenance, like disease or death.

I am afraid that (as with route maps) the Chapters in this letter are not really "stand alone", and whatever limited sense they have will be reduced, if they are not read, more or less, together and in order. You can stop any time you like, of course, and you can certainly skip the poems!

Content Summary:

Chapter 2: The "Real" World and the Truth of Words

Observation, understanding and decision
Words and "the real world"
How do our brains interpret the world?
What is language?
When are words "true"?
"Truth" requires two reasonable beings
Good paintings versus photographs
Infallibility and fundamentalism

Chapter 3: Science and Reductionism

What is Science?
What is Mathematics?
Where does Science start?
Good and Bad Science
Science and "falsifiability"
Science and Understanding
The Parallel Nature of Scientific Descriptions
Why reductionism is dangerous
Scientist (poem)

Chapter 4:Religion

What is Religion?
The evolution of belief systems
Honest Lies (poem)
Why Religion is dangerous
The New Covenant (poem)
The threat to global security?

Chapter 5: People and Beings...

As Interpretations
Are people predictable like robots?
Do we have a meaning?
Holiday (poem)
Beings which are not simply a person or animal
What does "God exists" mean
What is an act of God?
For what do Christians believe God is responsible?

Chapter 6: Morality and Behaviour

Evolution, Community Rules and Guilt
Consciousness replaces the selfish gene
Is the sum of global happiness a basis for morality? Human Rights
Legal Systems and Morality
Sex and sexuality
Good and Evil from a Christian perspective

Chapter 7: Salvation

Saved from what?
Cast off your flesh!
Preacher (poem)
Saved to become what?

Chapter 8:Christianity

Is the Bible true?
Knowing God
The Church

Chapter 9:Epilogue

Letter to Peter next chapter

If you have any comments please email:  book @ catesfamily.org.uk

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