Humbly I invite you to try to understand: 

  • That if you saw abortion as murder, in the way the pro-life crowd does, or in the way that you see the premeditated killing of a spouse as murder—then you too might be “intolerant” of the opposition. If you truly believed these things, you too might even see defending the lives of the unborn with force, as morally defensible. 

And

  • That if you see animals as very close to us in the evolutionary tree, and certainly not morally inferior … if you see them as sentient cousins who are conscious and equally as “sacred”—then you too might be “intolerant” of puppy mills, meat-eating humans (speciest cannibals), or those who wear mass-produced fur.

 And 

  • That if you really don’t believe in virgin births, vicarious redemption, scores of dead people walking through the city on the day Jesus was raised from the dead, or any of the thousands of mythological iterations of gods and what is required to make them happy—then you too might grow “intolerant” of being constantly reminded of how immoral and mistaken you are for rejecting the truth claims of each “true” religion.

 Or conversely, 

  • That if you truly believed a divine hand personally sent you a message—or provided people with scripture through the hand of chosen humans; and you believed that if they didn’t believe as you do your loved ones would surely suffer for all times, without end, in a shadowy underworld of torture, pain, and the most brutal punishments available—then you too might be “pushy” or aggressive in trying to influence people whom you care about.

 Or 

  • Or similarly, if you knew that great rewards awaited you for successfully sharing the “truth”, or for flying planes into a building as a martyr; and that anyone who thereby heard your truth or saw your sacrifice might reap the same reward as you—then you too might aggressively seek to share or impose that “truth”.

And 

  • That if you really believe that completely free and unregulated markets always outperform any attempt to regulate, control, or reallocate scarce resources; and you also believe that we humans have free will, and are almost totally and completely autonomous, self-determined beings that can—and should—be accountable only for our own behaviors, skills, capacities, and decisions—then you might understandably be less tolerant of those who make very bad decisions time and again, and you might vote for policies that preserve your liberties and wealth, even if to the detriment of those who make the bad decisions.

The POINT 

Humans adopt narratives to better understand things. When you better understand a person’s narratives, the beliefs that they hold dear, and the experiences that in their minds prove the truth of their beliefs, you can better understand their actions and behaviors. Better understanding motives and behaviors doesn’t condone, justify, make them truer or better, or excuse them; but I assert that it matters—because mutual understanding is a vital first step to improving human wellbeing.

WHY it Matters:

It seems to me that a mutual and more complete “understanding” of the reasoning, sociology, and psychology behind disparate narratives and worldviews is the first step in preserving peace and improving human wellbeing—based on the following logic:

     –    Understanding leads to tolerance;

     –    Tolerance allows minds to relax and be receptive to new information and views;

     –    Open minds are more capable of exchanging ideas and are less defensive when in dialogue;

     –    Through intellectually honest dialogue comes growth and learning;

     –    Through growth and learning come improved estimates of truth (how the world really works);

     –    Through truth comes improved human wellbeing.

So won’t you join me in being the change? In trying to improve your understanding of people and beliefs that are different from your own? Perhaps someday they will then join you and do the same for your beliefs? It’d be a great first step.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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It is true. I, Steve Gibson, have joined the ranks of the ordained. I am now Reverend Stephen L. Gibson. Am I taking this even remotely seriously? Yes, mostly. Why? Well, it’s simple: the world needs more ministers.

Shocked yet? Yes, you heard me right, and I’m serious—but no, I don’t believe in any human definitions of “god.” Yes, the bad news is that I’ve officially become a wing-nut wacko. But the good news is I’m not a wing-nut wacko in the traditional sense; I don’t subscribe to any new-age woo-woo, pseudoscience, voodoo, “The Secret,” definitions of the supernatural, personal deities that intervene in healthcare or our lives, and I most certainly don’t pretend to understand quantum physics. Heck, I don’t even subscribe to the power of positive thinking; even that simple idea has been shown ineffective by recent studies.

The truth is I always thought being a pastor would be a great fit for me on several levels. Besides, as Robert Putnam articulated in his book, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community, we live in a world where social interaction is not what it once was. We are very busy. We are sometimes lonely. We are not always fed, nor are our needs always met.

The Benefit

There is so much that can be gained from people who choose to minister to the needs of others, to set the bar high for their expectations of self, and others. From simple kindness, to lending an ear, to reminding us that we are valued and that adding meaning to life requires reflection, and effort.

“Pastors” and “Ministers” help us do research into thought and life philosophy, and find those stories and anecdotes that help re-center us. They provide emcee services for the rituals that can add structure and meaning to life. They strive to provide that extra voice of encouragement when we are down, and help us celebrate when we are up. They are with us in times of sorrow, and with us in times of joy. They are, in a way, a professional friend and sounding board. Could the world not use more who are committed to ministering? Of course!

For me, the only problem with my little plan is that after years of soul-searching, study, grappling, and reading, studying some more, and examining in great detail the arguments for and against human attempts to define the supernatural in any way—let alone as a personal deity who intervenes in daily life—I could no longer participate in good conscience in organizations that support such beliefs. That’s a problem for someone drawn to ministry, and a problem for many of the great pastors and scholars who have come to similar conclusions. Or is it?

The Question

Must we be religious to minister to the needs of our fellow humans? I argue emphatically, “No!”

It should be noted that I am not anti-religious. In fact, the epiphany ending in my novel about friends who make shocking discoveries about Christian history, makes the point that when we get hung up in the detailed debates about dogma, theology, and even historical truth—we miss the profound metaphorical points intended by the mythology. In short, as Joseph Campbell taught the world, myth is simply metaphor, and if we try to treat it as literal history we often miss the eternal truths about our human experience.

Concepts like redemption, sin, transgressions, forgiveness, love, grace, and salvation are so meaningful, and so central to our interactions. To suggest that these metaphorical stories—that give us a framework for understanding our humanness, should be somehow stricken from our lives and our culture—is ludicrous. They help us stretch and aspire to be all that we are capable of being—to love, and nurture, and interact positively with others. Dan Arielle’s excellent book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, shows the proven psychological value of mental reminders—like honor codes at schools—in improving behavior when we are reminded of the ideals contained therein. Myths can remind us as well!

Without the common language of words like “evil,” or “heaven,” we would be poor indeed. One might as well also remove all metaphors, literature, movies and art from the human experience and lexicon. The damage comes when we think myths are literally, historically true, but that is a discussion for another day.

Yes, I think the world needs non-theistic, legitimized, secular ministers, and needs them badly—for funerals, traditional recognitions, rights of passage, and other events.

Now a minority few of my fellow skeptics may be thinking that there should be no celebrations, no emotion-driven parties, no hyperbole, and no large marriage parties; but I respectfully disagree. We all need affirmation; we all need to stop and recognize our achievements, and we all need to mourn death. A professional to assist with these things is not a bad thing, it is a great thing!

In a way I already view my work as a ministry of sorts. My blog, and even my podcast, can somehow be viewed as sermons, can’t they? I enjoy and am willing to invest the time to question and inquire in such ways as to provide food for thought, much as a weekly sermon might. Of course I’m not preaching. I’m there with you, inquiring about the world, and therefore would never offer inquiry-killing solutions of a supernatural nature, nor pretend I have any lock on truth or answers—an important distinction from religious ministry where top-down truth claims are dispatched with regularity.

The Legitimacy

Lastly, on the topic of my on-line ordination through the Universal Life Church Monastery, an important thought: How is my ordination any less real, authoritative, or valid than the ordination of someone who took a traditional route through seminary? (It’s worth noting that seminary is not the only path to becoming a pastor in some Christian denominations.)  Think about that. Since I’m not claiming any knowledge of supernatural truth, or what happens in an unknowable realm outside the entirety of human knowledge, what’s the difference between me, you, and any traditionally ordained pastor? Traditional, religious ordination is about supernatural dogma, is it not?

Richard Dawkins made an excellent point in his bestselling book, The God Delusion. While I differ with him on a couple fronts, his statement that “I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology is a subject at all,” resonates with me.

In recounting a conversation with an astronomer and fellow Oxford professor, Dawkins recalls the astronomer replying to a very deep question, “Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain.”

But Dawkins quips that he wishes he’d said what he later wrote: “But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?” (Dawkins, 2006).

To his point, theologians study the unknowable supernatural realm and then attempt to describe it, anthropomorphically—be it as a man, woman, Allah, Yahweh, Zoroaster, Jesus, Brahman, nirvana, or in some other speculative, unfalsifiable fashion that is so abstract as to be usefully only to illustrate mythological truth. They might as well be masters of the Star Wars mythology, masters of Dungeons and Dragons, Greek or Roman mythology, or some other mythical archetype and framework. But does that grant exclusive rights to minister to fellow humans? No.

Again, there is real knowledge conveyed in myths and in the minds of theologians, about our human condition, and there is benefit to their interpersonal and social functions as a theological pastor; but technically speaking, a degree in theology is essentially a degree in magical thinking about a mythical realm—in metaphor. That makes for great storytelling, but it guarantees no real, inherent, empirical knowledge attached to it. It offers no explanatory benefit to the world beyond what a non-religious mythology could impart.

So in short, Dawkins argues any one of us is every bit as equally able to comment and speculate about the supernatural, unknowable worlds. (And for the record, once we know something about the unknowable, by definition it becomes natural, so the supernatural truly is that which is unknown and unknowable, by definition.) In some cases, I’d actually argue that we non-believers know more, because we see the value and power of the myth, unclouded by the compulsive need to unreasonably demythologize and literalize it. But even knowledge of myths is not essential to be a good minister, in this new, secular sense, is it? We don’t have to be good story tellers or masters of metaphor to be useful.

That is admittedly some direct language for someone whose mission and mantra are to honor all faith systems, worldviews, and narratives, and to promote inter-belief tolerance. But understand, I had to use clear language to legitimize my own right to pursue my genuine passion to help my fellow humans along their journey, by provoking thought and facilitating the sanctification of the real-world human experience.

So do I think I have any UNIQUE knowledge that makes me specially suited to be a pastor? Not really, but I don’t think the job requires it. This is where the Mormons, and even Martin Luther, may have set a valuable precedent. In the Mormon Church everyone can be ordained and serve, and many become ordained at a relatively young age. There is wisdom in that. (The hugely significant and notable exception to the wise insight is that when they say everyone, they mean “only men.”) There is nothing proprietary about caring, loving, and sharing. And the more the merrier! Of course Luther helped usher in the idea of direct access of the individual to God, versus the needing the Church as the gatekeeper. I guess I’m suggesting we go a step further, and more of us minister to … well … more of us.

Conclusion

There is nothing unique about my qualifications to help others, or perhaps yours, but there doesn’t need to be. I have a passion for what I see as the valuable and valid roles that a professional “thinker” and social functionary can play in honoring humans, serving them, encouraging them, raising consciousness, loving them, and freeing them to live more fully and love more wastefully. I don’t know that I’ll ever really perform these functions professionally, but they can certainly be an avocation for all of us.

If you agree, I suggest you join me by being ordained today. Visit the Universal Life Church Monastery today, at http://www.themonastery.org/. You don’t have to claim any knowledge about supernatural realm in order raise the bar for your expectations of self, and to serve others. In fact, I’d personally prefer you didn’t.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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So exactly what possessed me to go see the animated feature film “UP” is still a bit of a mystery. There were lots of reasons not to do so: time, no sources would be cited, there was nothing to be learned about Gnosticism or early Christian history, no awe-inspiring science or psychology revelations had been advertised, and they weren’t serving beer. Nonetheless, much as I’ve discovered about mythology and metaphor in history, there was such TRUTH articulated by this cartoon myth, that I would soon be fighting actual tears. (For the record, I did NOT “cry,” but was simply “tearing-up,” which was merely correlated with the film; it would be a mistake to assign causality without more data. It could have been the hvac system.)

So what got me to go see the movie? Probably it was the great reviews; perhaps it was the thirteen year-old guest staying with our two kids, or Pixar’s record of entertaining movies. Regardless, what’s more astonishing about my attendance is that I don’t “do” fiction/fantasy in almost any form—which I know is heretical coming from a geek wannabe, an author of a novel (one with 100-plus factual endnotes I should add), and an upcoming panelist on skepticism and fiction at this year’s Dragon*Con (I’ll redeem myself shortly, I hope). But the fact is that I’m never able put down any of my several “in-progress,” non-fiction books long enough to even consider something like Harry Potter, or the latest from James Patterson.

But alas, as in recent years I’m starting to understand—in the words of Joseph Campbell—“The Power of Myth”; and this movie is a perfect example. The poignancy, humor, flow, and life-like animation of “UP” not only captured my attention, it captured my heart and articulated a great life principal for entrepreneurs and adventurer-wannabes like me. And while I’ve skied great mountains, scuba dived ocean depths below 250’ (on straight air), and soared above the clouds in cockpits, the heights of my life articulated by “UP” will easily transcend those, as well as the adventures left unaccomplished when my days are all used up.

Like so many moving stories that chronicle the entire lives of their central characters, this one shows the beauty, disappointment, wages of aging, and pain that are all a part of living. As I can assure you is correct, we post-boomers who were raised to believe we can do or be anything, at some point in life realize that it was never true; and even if it had been, it clearly no longer is.

But in that realization, we who transition that mid-life crisis/realization can find great liberation. If we are lucky, we might even discover one of the great secrets of the human universe: love. We might just find that the heights we yearned to attain on the mountains “over there,” are heights we never even noticed we had already achieved on this side of the valley. Instead, we failed to notice we had already reached the summit, we failed to deeply fill our lungs with the mountain air, we failed to drink in the aesthetic beauty, and in some cases we failed to stop and appreciate those close to us—in our climbing team—who had shared the journey with us. This is the strength and moral of “UP.”

When we skeptics talk reason, facts, and truth-driven thinking over emotion-driven thinking, it’s important to note that most of us aren’t anti-emotion, or anti-human, or anti-mythology. In fact, as great New Testament scholars like Robert M. Price or Bart D. Ehrman have argued, sometimes it is when we insist upon literalizing metaphor and stuffing it into a dogmatic orthodoxy established by force and evolution over many centuries—that we lose the truth of the metaphor. We bastardize the mythological truth while shooting for literal truth instead.

Similarly, my family has long had a joke about films or sitcom shows that cross that reality line to the extent they become unwatchable. We call them “Sponge-Bobby,” after the frustratingly stupid antics of a certain square-assed animated figure. But the cool thing about “UP,” for me, was the ease with which I could completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride on the floating house. I felt no need to literalize the fantasy, yet at the same time the quality of the animation, the fluid flow of the thousands of helium balloons rigged by the curmudgeonly Mr. Fredricksen, and the beauty of the story and dialogue—lent the film substantial plausibility.

So while I may be humbled beyond words to sit on the panel discussion on Fictional Writing and Skepticism at Dragon*Con, I’ve come a long way, in recent years, toward seeing the power of myth to express what reality often cannot. “UP” is exactly the type of example I could cite. Perhaps it didn’t enlighten me on science, evolutionary history, or the history of god-worship, but it did some of what those things often do not do as efficiently. It gave me insights into the meaning of life, love, and the interconnectedness of our human experiences. After all, in the end, is either knowledge or experience of any value if not shared?

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(By Stephen L. Gibson, freely circulate with citations, CC 2009, Attribution-No Derivatives; www.truthdriventhinking.com and https://truthdriven.wordpress.com)

So unless you live in a cave, by now you have seen and heard about the amazing “Britain’s Got Talent” appearance by a frumpy middle-aged woman named Susan Boyle. If you haven’t, immediately exit your rock dwelling, click here, and be prepared to be moved.

Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle

Susan’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, was nothing short of a poignant television moment; even the skeptics have to admit that. We see a woman who appears to embody both the hopelessness and hopefulness of the human condition, take the stage as yet another unrealistic singer-wannabe, only to rapidly win over the judges and drive the audience to their feet with her soulful rendition of the gut-wrenching song.

Probably like you, I found the video deeply moving. Fine. I’ll toss out that I shed a tear. I’ll even admit that I downloaded the song on iTunes–in two versions! Yup, I’m a sap. This cat-woman’s story touched me (obviously I don’t mean she’s a superhero). But once again, being a skeptic and sap has its challenges for me.

“It was a setup,” my fellow rational thinkers were quick to point out. “It was way too perfect. Clearly Simon knew she was going to sing well, yet he pretended to be shocked.” Indeed her line about never having been kissed was shown to be “hyperbole.”

But once again, I fear we skeptics are missing the point. Sure, television producers try diligently to create moments like Susan Boyle’s. Yes, they edited the shots so as to create the greatest effect. Yes, they wanted her to appear the homely underdog, and secretly knew she could sing well. But call me a sappy skeptic because none of that changes the bittersweet and compelling nature of the story; and it is in that gut-grabbing nature that the lessons lie–even if only mythologically.

So even if press reports are wrong about her being born with minor brain damage, and being unemployed; even if her demeanor and simple kindness and respectfulness in press interviews is an Academy Award-winning performance; even if she’s a brilliant brain surgeon and who is a thespian on the side, there is a reason the video is so damned inspiring!

Read some of the words to this song about pain and suffering. Clearly this woman has experienced loss and anguish, because so have you, and so have I. Take a look:

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame

He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came

And still I dream he’ll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

     — I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables

Here is what is powerful: One, the woman has been challenged in life. Two, she has not had all the advantages we would all wish for our children. Three, she has doubtlessly endured extensive ridicule for being who she is, “Susie Simple.” Four, she has a real talent. Five, she sang a song that perfectly articulated her own pain. Six, like most with talent, it appeared that it would mostly be ignored by our beauty-oriented culture. Seven, somehow she obtained an unlikely moment in the sun. Eight, those with an empathy gene and a grasp on reality know that most people–even those with talent–never get their moment in the spotlight; dreams usually die as we age. Nine, in Susan Boyle’s gigantic moment of recognition, a dream was realized and one human’s worth was affirmed.

Even if it were pure theatrics, pure myth and metaphor, that moment spoke to our own human need to be recognized and loved, and reminded us that it wouldn’t kill us to occasionally take the time to recognize and validate the talents of others.

Finally, is it possible that we “skeptics” sometimes seek our own moment in the sun through pedantically pointing out truth vs. fiction, while missing the bigger picture? In the case of Susan Boyle, I’d suggest we not miss the deeper metaphorical point about the hopelessness, and hopefulness, of our human existence.

(Stephen L. Gibson, freely circulate with citations, CC 2009, Attribution-No Derivatives; www.truthdriventhinking.com and https://truthdriven.wordpress.com)

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