Tuesday, April 20, 2010

One Christian's Response to Adam Savage

Adam Savage is one of the hosts to the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters. I am a huge fan of the show and watch every episode that I can and I also follow Adam's twitter feed. I love how the Mythbusters take things that we assume to be one way or the other and put them to the test to see if indeed our assumptions are correct. I love how they seek the truth and attempt to avoid letting their own biases persuade them.

On more than one occasion I have even seen them admit to being wrong after the conclusion of an experiment. I find this to be a strength, not a weakness. This kind of humility and commitment to the truth is extremely rare in modern society and I appreciate their intellectual honesty. Last week the Harvard Secular Society gave lifetime achievement awards Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. At the awards ceremony, Adam gave an acceptance speech and that speech is what I would like to respectfully address in this post.

Here is a link to Adam's acceptance speech Food for the Eagle. (Please read the whole speech before going on with this article). Below are some excerpts from Adam's speech along with my own responses.
...It's provably false that there exists no morality outside of religion, therefore the statement sounds defensive to me.
Confirmed... I agree with Adam on this point. I think as Christians we err in assuming that only Christians are charitable or look out for the good of others. I have some great friends who are atheists and I have seen them be very generous and caring and loving because it is the right thing to do. I think Christians have a tendency to assume that we are morally superior to non-Christians or those of other faiths, and this is just not true or accurate. My question for atheist friends is: "Where does this desire to serve and help others come from even when it is contrary to evolution of the species or self preservation?" In my worldview it is a reflection of how God made us to be, but I am sure we would disagree so I will say no more on this for now.

... and Busted- While I agree that morality exists outside of religion, I don't think anyone is intrinsically and completely good. Everyone has capacity for and participates in evil on some level (and I mean everyone, even me, even Adam). A true follower of the way of Christ realizes that no matter how much we try to be good we all fail miserably and utterly in comparison to the kind of life Jesus Christ called people to live. That is the whole story of the Christian faith and for too long Christians have acted as if we have it all together. One Christian writer says that Christians should be among some of the most humble people on earth because they are the ones who truly realize how far they fall from God's idea of what it means to be good.
By what route does anyone come to believe what they believe? We all like to imagine that it's based on a set of logical facts, but it's often a much more circuitous route.
For me it was pretty simple. I'm actually the fourth generation in my family to have no practical use for the church, or God, or religion. My children this trend.
Confirmed- I have to say that I agree with Adam on this point. Most people believe what they believe (religious or otherwise) simply because they grow up in a culture that imposes itself on them. If one only believes what they believe because that is what they grew up being taught and they have not challenged their own beliefs, then you have to wonder if it is really a deep conviction or merely a cultural script that they are living out. Regardless of what you believe, if the only reason you believe it is because it is what your parents and culture believe, then I would say that you might want to revisit and retest your belief structures. Many well intentioned parents and grandparents have been wrong on occasion, and we should be cautious not to just live out what they taught without challenging and testing the veracity of it.
Prayer doesn't work because someone out there is listening, it works because someone in here is listening. I've paid attention. I've pictured what I want to happen in my life. I've meditated extensively on my family, my future, my past actions and what did and didn't work for me about them. I've looked hard at problems and thought hard about their solutions.

See, I order my life by the same mechanism that I use to build things. I cannot proceed to move tools around in the real world until my brain has a clear picture in it of what I'm building. The same goes for my life. I've tried to pay attention. I've tried to picture the way I want things to be, and I've noticed that when I had a clear picture, things often turned out the way I wanted them to.

I've concluded by this that someone is paying attention—I've concluded that it's me. I've noticed that if I'm paying attention to those around me, to myself, to my surroundings, then that is the very definition of empathy. I've noticed that when I pay attention, I'm less selfish, I'm happier—and that the inverse holds true as well.
Plausible- I agree with Adam that one of the main things that happens when I pray is that my own convictions change. As I lift up my needs or the needs of others it is often impressed upon me that I am the answer to my own prayer.

However, in my life I have also seen visible answers to my prayers on behalf of others. These were sincere and authentic prayers where I had no direct influence in the outcome in the other person's life and no one other than me (and God) heard my prayers. The challenge is this: I can't prove that this is not coincidence. What I see as an answer to prayer Adam would see as coincidence at best. So, for my part, I have to at least admit that his point of view that prayer does nothing is plausible. On the other hand, I have seen enough "coincidences" in my life and in the lives of others that I will continue to pray.
While nobody's going to take care of us, it's incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That's community.
Hmmmm- I would love to grab a pint with Adam sometime and have him unpack this a little more for me. I would like to ask him why it would be incumbent for us to take care of those around us. As an atheist, I wonder what moral imperative there would be to not only take care of others, but to even be willing to lay down your own life for them (maybe that would be going too far).

As a Christian, I believe this statement is true because all of humanity is created in the image of God. As we take care of one another, the weak, the poor, and even our own enemies we are taking care of God (Jesus said that whatever you do to the least of people, you do it to him as well). We are called by God to consider others better than ourselves and die to our own ambitions and desires for the sake of serving and loving others.
We'd all like our good and evil to be like it is in the movies: specific and horrible, easy to defeat. But it's not. It's banal.
 Confir... Actually, I have to go with half-Busted-  Ok, one must admit that some evil in the world is specific and horrible. Take things like human trafficking, the sex trade, slavery, or tyrannical regimes who despise and starve an entire population. To deny this would be to have your head in the sand.

On the other hand, like Adam says, most of the evil in the world is banal. This is because it is something that we all participate in almost daily without even realizing it and this is probably the worst and most prolific kind of evil. The real problem with defeating this kind of evil is that we are all contributors. We may think we are not contributing to evil when we purchase our cheap food, clothing, and electronic products, but then when we hear that they are made in unsafe working conditions we have to ask "are we participating in and even benefiting from evil". It is We are the sleeping masses who go through life without questioning their our actions that contribute to the power structures and systems around the world that lead to injustice and inequality. If we really hope to defeat evil then we should be most concerned with our own actions and pruning out all of the evil our in our own lives. Anyone, who would claim this kind of everyday, commonplace evil is easy to defeat is gravely mistaken and probably has never seriously tried. In this Adam and I agree.  
As far as I can see, the three main intolerant religions in the world aren't helping in that mission.

For all their talk of charity and knowledge, that they close their eyes to so much—to science, to birth control education, to abuses of power by some of their leaders, to evolution as provable and therefore factual (the list is staggering)—illustrates a wide scope of bigotry.
Plausible- I will only speak on behalf of my understanding of the Christian faith. I believe that there are many loud and vocal voices in Christian circles who do close their eyes to some aspects of science. However, for anyone to even hint that science and Christianity are diametrically opposed either does not understand science or does not understand Christianity. For me, trust of the scientific method comes out of my belief that God is orderly and has instilled the universe with order. However, I also realize that our ability to use science in a completely unbiased way to understand everything has its limitations. Recognizing those limitations still leaves us with quite a few questions. Questions that science will never be able to answer or solve.
At the end of The Eagle's Gift, Don Juan reveals to his student that there's no point to existence. That we're given our brief 70-100 years of consciousness by something the mystics call "The Eagle," named for it's cold, killer demeanor. And when we die, the eagle gobbles our consciousness right back up again.

He explains that the mystics, to give thanks to the eagle for the brief bout of consciousness they're granted, attempt to widen their consciousness as much as possible. This provides a particularly delicious meal for the eagle when it gobbles one up at the end of one's life.
And that, to me, is a fine mission.
Plausible- As a Christian, I have to admit that there is a possibility that what Adam says is plausible. I personally would find this kind of existence very depressing. If there is really no point to existence then it seems to me that using our consciousness for the pursuit of knowledge would be no more or less noble then seeking comfort, power, money and using whatever means necessary to do so. While Adam seems like a great guy, I can see that if everyone defines and chooses their own mission in life this could (and does) lead to some pretty hedonistic and destructive practices.

Some Concluding thoughts- I appreciate Adam's candor and honesty in this speech even though my worldview sees the same world through a different lens. While for me, family, culture, prayer, miracles, and church have all played a significant role in my life, none of these influences are strong enough to compel me to practice something that I believe to be false. Also, none of these alone are enough to prove to me that my faith is true.

However, the one thing that is my rock and the foundation of my faith is the great narrative of the Bible and its culmination in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This story that took place across multiple cultures, languages, and times all points towards the life of one amazing historic figure. This story is, for me, so compelling that I can't imagine anyone in this world being cunning enough to paste this many stories together into one cohesive narrative. I guess it is possible that this series a random stories just happen to fit together into one cohesive whole, but I find that implausible.

I wish Adam and the Mythbusters the best and look forward to learning more as I continue to watch their show!