Terry Hancock

Terry Hancock

"My Religion" or Thoughts About It, Anyway

Occasionally, I get asked about my religion or more naively whether I "believe in God" or not. That's not a simple yes or no question in my opinion, so I usually just avoid it. However, as this is my personal website, I can be self-indulgent. Here's a more complete answer for those who care to read it...

On Religion

My earliest religious experience was with Southern Baptists -- a group which is still culturally dominant where I live. It was not a great impression. My mother became dissatisfied with this, and converted to Catholicism. So I think of myself as "raised Catholic", and indeed, I was an active Catholic into college. I'm not really sure if I was a "believer" or not. I always had doubts, and I never accepted a literalist interpretation in any case -- I always felt that the forms of the religion were at best a way to point to deeper realities which defied simple explanation. And I always believed in a kind of relgious relativism -- i.e. that other religions might be just as valid a means to access such deeper realities.

As a scientist, I came to understand the world in a fundamentally atheist way, without reference to any kind of religious understanding. I still feel this is the only honest way to deal with the material, factual world of our senses.

I went through a lot of different fusions or "syncretisms" of these philosophies, trying to rectify the personal and the objective. Mostly I just became a "lapsed Catholic" and didn't go to church. Then I had kids, moved back to Texas, where not having a religion is a social hazard, and decided to join a Unitarian Universalist church -- which gives the social advantages of a church, but without the dogma. I could continue to be a free thinker, and not have to hide it (which is good, because I was never particularly good at that).

"So what is it I think with my free-thinking self", you ask?

Religiously, I reject the absolutism of atheism, not so much because I dislike a world-model without a "God" concept, as because most atheist philosophy seems to be reactive and anti-spiritualist. I am a monist, in that I believe there is no material "other world" of spiritual existence, but I do think that one can project a spiritual world in the same way that one can project an information world -- that is, one can make a perceptual transformation of a singular reality for the purposes of understanding, rather than finding a literally distinct reality.

For (a less controversial) example, the "internet" as a material entity contains no "ones and zeroes", let alone "websites" or "databases" -- those are conceptual interpretations. The internet as a material object is a vastly distributed and difficult to conceptualize bundle of wires and semiconductor devices, considered alongside magnetic field domains and electrons.

But to try to understand the internet in those terms is pointless and unproductive. We thus conceptualize an "information world" in which intangible "things" like "websites", "blogs", "programs", "databases", "email", and other concepts "exist". But this is not the same verb "exist" as we mean when we say that a table or a rock "exists". There is no material substance of which websites are made.

We face a similar problem with the "spiritual world". That I can talk about my "spirit", let alone the "spirit of the age", or "good spirits", or "evil spirits", or the "holy spirit" -- or whatever spiritual concept you want to raise, does not imply that there is some alternate physical reality in which these things exist as glowing blue lights or clouds (as seems to be the standard filmic metaphor for such things). It simply means that there are alternate ways of conceptualizing the world. I do not believe in "magic" -- if by that, you mean "things that violate physical law". But I do believe in "magic", if by that you mean "things which might surprise you if you don't think past purely mechanistic reasoning."

Spiritual thought can give us tools for understanding patterns that exist on too large a scale for us to follow in a purely material way -- in the same way that thermodynamics can allow us to understand the world in a way that would be overwhelming if we had to interpret it in terms of individual atomic collisions.

Curiously, the more I learn about the human condition and about cognitive theory, the more I believe there really is an "afterlife" and it really does have something to do with "religion" -- but probably not in the way most people start out imagining it.

Have you ever thought about how obsessed religious people are with language? A particular way of expressing a concept (e.g. "your own personal savior") becomes paramount. So much so, in fact, that religious people often seem to get hung up on differences that seem more to be re-wordings than any kind of contradictory statement of fact. Re-state an idea in terms of the definitions of the words in a religious "belief" statement, and you will frequently encounter enormous resistance. Clinging to the forms is very important in religion.

It's a miracle that religious texts can ever get translated between different human languages. I once had the opportunity to read an English translation of a Japanese article on Christianity, and the thing that struck me most was that I could hardly tell what religion they were talking about. The necessary reconceptualization of the ideas of Christianity from English to Japanese and back to English (not machine translations, mind you, but real human interpretations) made such a difference that it seemed as if I were reading about a completely new (albeit somewhat interesting) religion.

Of course, I could not help but consider what that means about the religion of Christianity as practiced in English and how it must be quite different from the Aramaic religion of Jesus or the Hebrew religion of the Israelites to whom he preached or even the Latin and Greek-speaking people who followed.

I've always found this curious.

But recently, I began to think it has a reasonable cause. And that is that religion is language. It is constructed of language. It preserves language. And it controls your perception of the world through the particular conceptualization of that world inherent in the language it uses.

Religion is like poetry -- and when the words themselves are important, translations require more and more interpretation.

Religion also preserves a culture and the ideas that form that culture. It collects the ideas and practices of that culture and it provides a framework for understanding the individuals within that culture -- both living and dead.

What would it mean to live beyond death?

Well, it could mean a lot of things. For example, it could mean reanimating the same flesh that was you before (presumably undoing whatever decay may have gone on before). This is the "zombie undead" interpretation. But I'm pretty sure most religious people are not seeking this.

It could mean that some special "essence" of you that makes you you lives on. Is this with or without information?

I would argue that if it is "without information" then it is really rather meaningless. It seems to me that what makes you you is information. And indeed, it is remembered information that makes you today the "same person" as you yesterday, even though there may be important differences between the person you were yesterday and the person you are today.

Our consciousness recoils against the dismemberment fear of de-identifying our separate daily selves from each other -- even though there is the discontinuity of sleep to separate them. Yet, it is a fact that we are not materially the same objects we were years ago (research suggests that pretty much all of the atoms in your body get replaced over a period of about 5-10 years). In other words, you are already a copy of the person you were as a child -- and of course, a quite-changed, highly-interpreted copy, as the years have made you.

Something else brings this home to me: I can remember things I never saw. And I've spoken to other people who've had the same experience. Some stories have been told to me so often by my parents and other relatives that my imagined interpretation of the story has acquired all of the vividness of a true memory from my own point of view. What then of the vividly imagined stories of ancient heros and myths? In some very real way, these things are part of us.

And to a large degree, a person "is" a bundle of such memories.

If we could somehow "download" all of those memories into a functioning simulation of a human mind, we'd have achieved the transhumanist dream of immortality through the direct transition of biological to electronic consciousness.

But here's the thing: we're already doing it. And we've been doing it for a long time.

If the fundamental character of an individual being is memories, and memories can be conveyed by language -- leaving aside augmentation by video cameras and microphones and computer networks -- then we've been "downloading our consciousness" into our children and students for millenia. What we have created is an immortal gestalt race-consciousness.

With improving communications technologies -- with the current apex being the present "social media augmented" "world wide web" (but with the understanding that much more is coming) -- the bindings of that collective race consciousness are becoming tighter. It's like a thickening of a notional external "corpus collosum" connecting not the two halves of our own brains, but all of our brains together. Identity becomes smeared across more than a single mind.

There may not have always been a Stoic "original flame" from which we all came and to which we all will return -- but there darned sure is one now!