Saturday, October 21, 2006

Belief and Discernment

Delivered by Warren Brown
July 23, 2006

Sunday Morning Service

Years ago, I had a business that often required me to drive long distances at night. To pass the time, I listened to books-on-tape, or music on cassette, or occasionally late night talk radio. One night, in Fall of 1996 very early in the morning, I was tuning around the distant AM stations when I came across a show that I hadn’t heard before. There was a scientist talking with the host about a comet that was traveling toward Earth.

“Cool, a talk show about astronomy,” I thought. Now, I’m not a scientist, but science has always fascinated me. So I settled in to the conversation.

The scientist was Dr. Courtney Brown, a tenured professor at Emory University. He was talking about a recently taken photograph of the Hale-Bopp comet that at the time was on its approach passed Earth. Hale-Bopp, most of you will remember, was one of the largest comets to travel by our planet in over one hundred years. It could easily be seen in the night sky without a telescope.

The photo that Dr. Brown was talking about had been taken by someone he referred to as a “top-ten university astronomer.” What made this picture interesting is that it appeared to show something more than the comet. The photo showed a large object behind Hale-Bopp – an object that he said was up to four times the size of Earth. This object was originally discovered by an amateur astronomer named Chuck Shramek, who had been tracking the progress of Hale-Bopp. Dr. Brown’s photo seemed to support the object’s existence. Even more interesting was that according to Shramek the object didn’t correspond to any known bodies on the star charts. But what really piqued my interest, was when Brown stated that the object seemed to be actually traveling along with the comet! More astonishing yet, he maintained that it was not a natural object and that it was traveling in a way that seemed to purposely shield its view from the Earth behind the bright comet!

Well, at this point, my 2 o’clock in the morning brain was racing. “Are these guys saying that this thing is a space craft being piloted toward the earth using Hale-Bopp as cover?” Yes, that was exactly what they were saying. This was astounding! If true, it would have been the beginning of one of the most significant moments in the history of planet! All of our past assumptions about everything - the cosmos, life, and God would be put to the test.

I was excited. But, I wasn’t ready to be sold yet. News of this scope naturally kicked my skepticism into overdrive. On one hand, someone with seemingly respectable credentials was making the claim. And there was the corroborating photograph. Dr. Brown even asserted that he had contacted the Greenwich Observatory who was supposedly also following the unidentified object. Also, I was aware that some of the great scientific minds of the time considered life on other planets, not only possible, but probable. It stood to reason that sometime, a sufficiently advanced alien culture might just show up.

On the other hand, this was an extraordinary claim. And my source of information – well, the authority of commercial talk radio anytime of the day should be considered suspect – talk radio at 2 in the morning is even more dubious. Besides, Dr. Brown only identified the author of the photo as a “top ten university astronomer.” He said that the scientist was arranging a press conference to officially announce the discovery, and wanted to remain anonymous until then. Hmmm…

Still, as the show signed off the air, promising to keep abreast of developing information, I was thrilled at the prospect. But at the same time, I was determined to find news that would support these claims.

So the next day, I bought several newspapers. I scanned the TV. I listened to the radio. Surely, news like this would get lots of coverage. But nothing. No articles. No stories. No commentaries. About the aliens coming to earth - there was only silence.

Now, I’m not big on conspiracies. So reluctantly, I had to admit that if the media wasn’t covering this story, there was a good chance that it wasn’t credible. That night, I tuned back in to the radio show. They were still talking about the aliens. And I learned more about Dr. Courtney Brown from Emory. His field was and still is political science, not astronomy. He’s also the director of the Farsight Institute – an organization dedicated to scientific remote viewing – a process that uses psychic ability to “see” events in distant locations or back in time. Apparently, it was three of his remote viewers that identified the Hale-Bopp companion as a metallic structure filled with aliens. Well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about remote viewing. But to me, it sounded like pseudo-science at best, and sadly I concluded that aliens were probably not about to land.

It turns out that the show I was listening to was the Art Bell show, a regular haunt of those interested in paranormal oddities and conspiracies. I later heard that Dr. Brown’s corroborating photo was a fake and that Chuck Shramek, the amateur astronomer that had found the object was using his star chart program incorrectly. The object he “discovered” was indeed a known star.

For me and for most people who heard about Hale-Bopp’s alien companion, that was the end of the story. We had listened to the claims. We critically examined the evidence. And finding them unconvincing – like it or not, we rejected the whole notion.

But there were others who heard the assertions of Chuck Shramek and Courtney Brown who came to very different conclusions. Marshall Applewhite was the charismatic leader of a small religious sect in California. He and his 38 followers had access to the same information that I had. But rather than rejecting the contentions about aliens, they embraced them. Applewhite and his group became convinced that not only was a ship on its way, it was coming for them. In fact, they were so sure, that a few months after Art Bell broke the news on his program, all 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult quietly and methodically committed suicide in preparation for their galactic voyage.

How could such a thing happen? How could these people, when presented with essentially the same information that I was, come to believe such radically different things? Those questions have haunted me ever since.

How do we form our beliefs? How do we validate or invalidate them? And how do those beliefs affect our lives? For UU’s, these questions are central to our 4th principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It’s important that we think about the things that we believe.

I meet with a group here at the church called UU Baggage Inspection. Once a month we get together to examine and discuss a foundational spiritual concept. So I was excited when one of our first topics was “belief.” It gave me the excuse to do a little research on the subject. And while I was only able to scratch the surface of a very complex issue, I found the information useful and enlightening.

Beliefs concern those ideas that we consider true, but have no proof. We hold many, many beliefs – some are profound, and some are ordinary. We may believe an intelligent God guides the universe. We may believe our kids sometimes lie about finishing their homework. We may believe in a woman’s right to choose. We may believe our co-workers are shameless self-promoters. We may believe that we can succeed if we only try. We may believe that Fords are better than Chevys. We have beliefs about everything and everyone around us. All of those beliefs work together to create our world-view. And they color everything we see.

Where do these beliefs come from? Some we get from others. As children, many of our beliefs come from our parents. Others we get from friends or teachers or ministers. And many, we come up with on our own.

Michael Shermer, psychologist and founding publisher of Skeptics Magazine has studied and written extensively about the formation of beliefs. In his book “How We Believe – Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God,” he argues that beliefs often start with something that we as humans are particularly good at:

Did you see the square in this pattern?

This graphic illustrates something humans are very good at. We are pattern-seeking animals. Recognizing patterns in our world has always been crucial to our survival. For example:
- Early hunters noticed that their hunt’s were more successful when they stayed upwind of their quarry.
- And when they began to farm, they learned that cow manure is good for crops.
Even today…
- We learn early that when crossing the street that dangerous cars are likely to be speeding by,
- Later we notice that if we drink too much we’ll feel bad the next day.
- Or as I’ve found out on occasion, if I act like a jerk, people will treat me like one.

As we recognize patterns, we can begin to make assumptions about our world - assumptions that we put together to form systems of belief.
- If we look both ways, we won’t be run over by a car.
- We should drink in moderation.
- If we don’t act like jerks and treat people with respect, we’ll get along better with those around us.

Michael Shermer asserts that this process of assembling patterns into beliefs has through evolution become hardwired into our brains. It’s a system he’s dubbed the “Belief Engine.” And it works so well, that if we’re not careful, it can cause us problems. It turns out that we’re so good at seeing patterns, we sometimes see them when they are not there.

This time, look again and try not to see the square.

It’s difficult to do. Our brains fill in the missing pieces.
There’s not really a square there –
Only four Pac Man shapes.

We’re predisposed to see the pattern. Once we’ve identified it, a pattern is difficult to reject, even if new information contradicts it. Not only that, we tend to see the patterns that we want to see, and deny the patterns that we don’t.

When I shop at the supermarket, I always try to figure out which will be the fastest checkout line. But no matter how carefully I choose, the person ahead of me always has an item that won’t scan, or has forgotten his or her bonus card and needs to have the number looked up, or has a coupon for two bottles of dish detergent but only picked up one. In the meantime, the people who were at the backs of the other lines when I walked up are now on their way to the parking lot. The pattern always is – that the slowest line will always be the one that I choose.

Of course, I know that’s not really true. In fact, every time I’m at the store, rather than just getting in any line, I always try to calculate which lane has the fewest items and the fastest checker - even though, I’m probably right less than half the time.

So, why do I persist in this belief that I can pick a fast checkout lane? It may be partly because of who I believe I am. The strong image I have of myself is that of an intelligent and rational thinker. Therefore, I believe that I have the mental acuity to be able to read all of the variables in the checkout lane to determine which will be fastest. The fact that I fail more than succeed, doesn’t harmonize with my self-image. As a result, I deny the pattern and preserve my delusion.

It’s the same for all of our beliefs. They have to be in harmony. So if new patterns of information come along that support our existing beliefs we’re disposed to accept them. On the contrary, if new information challenges our beliefs we have three choices. Our first reaction might be to reject the new information. Or we can try to make it fit our existing beliefs. Otherwise, we must change or discard our conflicting beliefs. For strongly held beliefs, this can be a very difficult thing to do.

Heaven’s Gate founder Marshall Applewhite was a very troubled man. He struggled with mental illness and his own sexuality. In his thirties, he had admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital for hearing voices and to be “cured” of his homosexual urges. Unfortunately, the medical community wasn’t able to help him. So instead, he sought solace in an increasingly bizarre system of beliefs. He believed that he was a messenger from an “Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human.” who had been sent to earth and placed in his current “human container.” He was rejecting his humanity, and perhaps overcoming his inner conflict.

His mission was to prepare the world to be recycled to the next evolutionary level. To aid him, he gathered a number of followers whom he also indoctrinated into his beliefs. The members of Heaven’s Gate were isolated from the outside world - including from their family and friends. They were given new names and forced to take on androgynous identities. Applewhite controlled all information, not allowing his followers to watch television or read anything he did not approve.

When Courtney Brown’s news of an alien ship reached the group, it was altogether consistent with their beliefs that it was coming for them. To be swept away from their troubled existence on Earth, must have been cause for celebration. But in the months that followed Art Bell’s show, the contradicting evidence would have become increasingly difficult to reject. In the end, death may have seemed the only way to retain “the truth.” When Applewhite elected to die, his followers were obliged to do likewise.

Thank goodness the Heaven’s Gate episode was the kind of rare and tragic event that’s not likely to personally touch most of our lives. But the warning is clear. Wrong-headed beliefs are the cause of sadness and suffering everyday, everywhere. In Iraq people regularly justify killing themselves and others because they believe it will be pleasing to God. Elsewhere others succumb to scams because they believe the stories of unscrupulous con artists. Many of us know people who reject relationships with family members whose sexual orientation clashes with their beliefs. And how many here aren’t willing to work for the growth of our congregation believing that more members will destroy the intimate nature of our community?

Conversely, how much better is a society that challenges beliefs of racial or gender superiority? Our environment improves as beliefs about pollution change. And how much more effective are all of us in everything we do if We Believe We can make a difference?

A mountain of information comes at us everyday on which we form judgments. We should all be critical of the messages we receive. But we shouldn’t discard information just because it challenges the things we believe. As Michael Shermer reminds us, it’s easy to deceive ourselves. Many of the beliefs to which we cling limit rather than expand our possibilities. We all have beliefs that are worth keeping and others that should be modified or thrown away. Discernment is the process of deciding which is which. I challenge all of you – which beliefs could you change that would make your life better?

Quite a few of us are here today because we rejected beliefs that we had grown up with. We sought a place where we were free to believe as our own heads and hearts guided. UU’s are good at challenging beliefs. But we should never be complacent - not if we are to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

May your beliefs bring you strength in adversity, comfort in uncertainty, and peace in quietude.

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