An Agnostic at the Vatican Museums

DSC_0366I recently visited the Vatican Museums in Rome, Italy. It was a revealing experience as an agnostic and ex-Catholic. I was surprised to see so many antiquities related to the mythological religions of the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Viewing them with the related collections of Catholic antiquities served as a visual allegory revealing the underlying truth of religions. All of the Christian art and symbology fit well with the rest of the collection to tell us that it was all developed from human imagination. They simply stand together as the mythologies of our ancestors. We’re often told by religious people that we just need to open our eyes and the truth will be revealed to us. I was open to whatever messages were around me and this is what I took away from my Vatican visit.

sarcophagus relief

Sarcophagus front for a married couple with Hades door ajar from 240/250 AD

Our tour guide told us this rich couple had this sarcophagus front made to depict their journey to death escorted by Zeus and Hera. It’s not unique to claim the gods have a personal interest in our lives and deaths. This couple believed they were special and they had the money to memorialize it. Doesn’t this center of the universe viewpoint sound familiar? Don’t we see echoes of this human vanity over and over again in other religions where the god or gods exist relative to our own simple existence?

The tour guide said the partially open doors symbolizes we don’t know what’s beyond the doors in death since we can’t see what’s through those doors. The partially open doors are a fitting allegory for agnosticism describing our lack of knowledge about death until we pass through the doors. I saw many Christian depictions of crossing over to death in the rest of the museums, St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel. They also spoke to me about our lack of true knowledge regarding our deaths.

We’re not allowed to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel but you can see and read about Michelangelo’s paintings including the Creation of Adam and Last Judgement elsewhere. I was told he used real people as models for these scenes. Once again we see how we project our common selves into grand stories and mythologies. How this art was created serves as an example of this.

Traditional art of Michelangelo’s time depicted people dressed according to their social status. He reveals a deeper truth by stripping humans bare and equalizing us in our nudity. The Last Judgement showed final journeys into heaven and hell but I didn’t feel any profound revelation by this any differently than the sarcophagus above. Reading the Bible describing this scene is as revealing as reading about the ancient mythologies. You can not only see but also feel the similarities of these beliefs when you physically put them together like this. The experience deepened my feeling of agnosticism if it can be described in those terms.

I didn’t find any profound truths when I viewed all of these things together through the lens of agnosticism which is accepting the limits of human knowledge regarding anything supernatural. We’re often told by the religious that we just need faith. We shouldn’t view reality through the lens of blind faith and accept the mysterious unknown as a truth. We should judge reality with impartial logic. The requirement for faith to believe in religious claims perfectly describes the lack of verifiable facts or truths in those claims. I put my faith in knowledge and visiting the Vatican only served to strengthen my faith in knowledge.

Death & Reincarnation

There’s a new website being built by an Agnostic called The Nurtured Agnostic. Check it out for it’s quick little overviews of beliefs and keep an eye on it for contributing to the agnostic dialog and our collective exploration of truth.

The author claims to be an agnostic deist so there are already a few beliefs there that go beyond the bounds of primary agnosticism. I always find religious people cherry-picking what they believe with their faith so I shouldn’t be surprised to find agnostics selectively adding faith-based beliefs to their acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge. The Nurtured Agnostic believes in Near Death Experiences and Reincarnation.

Well, what do we actually know about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)? The first thing I imagine is that a Near Anything Experience isn’t an achievement of that state. Could I feel almost like a vapor or a vampire? I wouldn’t be a full vapor that pulled myself back into a human form like Dracula or become the actual bloodsucking undead just because I almost feel like it.

What about an out of body experience? I’ve woken up feeling like I fell back into myself but the feeling in my body doesn’t prove anything happened outside of it. We often take something we don’t understand and project something we know over it. My brain can throw the sensation of falling over some odd feeling in my body or my mind I was having as I slept and dreamed. I do know that dreams aren’t physical realities and NDEs could be something from a dream state.

The state of nearly being dead is the same state as still being alive with at least a partially functioning brain. Complete brain death is when our synapses are no longer firing. Electricity and chemicals in the brain no longer flow and the storm of consciousness and thoughts ceases to exist.

If the laws of thermodynamics are correct then the energy of our consciousness is returned to the universe. It doesn’t make sense to me that it retains any sort of cohesion when we die since it currently exists in a physical structure (the brain) and appears to require that structure to work. I honestly don’t know because I haven’t died yet. I imagine being near death is the slipping away of that cohesion while still having a hold on consciousness. A NDE could be the sense of self on the edge of losing cohesion, which should give us some interesting feelings about it once we snap back to a fully alive state.

NDEs, out of body experiences, and anything else that contributes to understanding the relationship of our consciousness with our physical bodies are good areas for scientific study. These things could really expose the truth of our existence and relationship to the natural universe so they shouldn’t just be dismissed as unbelievable. They could help prove or disprove what some consider to be in the realm of the supernatural that just may be parts of the natural universe we don’t understand.

We don’t truly know what happens after we die and return our materials and energy back to the universe. That leads me to believe that reincarnation is unknown since it’s based on knowing we retain something of ourselves when we die. I can’t say that it’s disproved even if I personally consider it unlikely. If we die and the energy of our consciousness can maintain some cohesion of self, then what remains of that consciousness could be reused in another form. It’s a weak house of cards to build a belief on. There’s a lot there that’s well beyond human understanding and isn’t something we can turn into a verifiable truth. It’s not worth stating a definite belief for it even though we should remain open-minded about the possibilities in that area.Welcome Back mat to Reincarnation Studies Center

Souls From The Universe

The true essence of what could be considered our soul is rooted in our physical mind. But what if there is a true origin for our soul in this universe that is not yet dreamt of in our philosophies or religions? The root of agnosticism for me is this acknowledgement that outside of our verifiable knowledge is the realm of the unknown and a possibly unknowable reality. The universe gives us our atoms and the building blocks of our physical bodies. I can imagine that some of the essence of our thoughts and our personas could also come from some misunderstood aspect of the universe instead of existing exclusively in our physical minds.

Our thoughts could be built from and connected back to the universe just as our bodies are built from the materials of the universe. Our bodies and minds are clearly independent of the universe, but there could be more of an impact and connection to our minds just as the physical universe impacts our physical bodies in many ways we don’t always understand or see. A physical example of this is radiation. Maybe there could be a mental equivalent of radiation. This is not to say that such things actually exist and leaps of faith can be justified by imagined possibilities. This is just to point out the limits of our knowledge. Since science can discover and prove radiation, perhaps science may be able to discover a mental essence of our being in addition to our physical existence. It could then be imagined that our mental essence could be built from our parents just as their DNA builds our physical bodies.

So many people believe in specific ideas of an intelligent creator that built thinking beings like themselves. I think it’s more likely this belief is based on projecting our own personas back on the universe from which we are built. If we have a subconscious sense of our bodies being built from the universe then perhaps we have a sense that our conscious also comes from the universe. This doesn’t mean there has to be a deliberate or intelligent cause for this to happen and is something that is beyond our knowledge our understanding. I’m simply suggesting that there may be something to a feeling that there is something out there more than this physical existence and it isn’t a jealous god that demands our love.

We know that the matter of the universe has spawned our physical bodies and minds in this little corner of it all. We don’t know, but it’s plausible, that we assemble our conscious thoughts and sense of self as momentary collections of something unknown in the universe just as our bodies are momentary collections of atoms we understand.  We return our bodies to the universe to be used for other things that are unintelligent and unrelated to our lives. Perhaps our thoughts and the essence of our being could also be something tangible we don’t understand. Whatever it is could also be dispersed back into the universe when the atoms of our brains cease to be organized as a living organ capable of processing thoughts. There could be an eternal soul and it’s simply some other material in the universe that organizes into our sense of being for a brief moment in eternity to be dispersed back into the cosmos.

The concept of a soul is another point where I believe knowledge trumps belief and agnosticism is more informative and descriptive than atheism. Disbelief in theism doesn’t convey this idea of what is known and the possibility of something existing beyond what we currently consider to be the natural universe. The atheist response to the soul is that we don’t believe because it is unbelievable. This is valid but it isn’t my primary message to people asking me what I believe. The agnostic view of the soul is we don’t know because it’s unknowable. The complete picture is agnostic atheism: I don’t know and don’t believe because of that.

An Eternal Soul

The essence of self in our minds and psyche appears when the neurons of our brain formulate and process our first thought. These thoughts are recorded as memories that continue to feed our growing identities. What happens to our essence of self when our brains no longer function? I’ve known people that have died and everything I’ve seen has shown me they cease to exist. My own experience is that I don’t know of anything before I was born. Everything I know of our physical universe tells me that I don’t exist without my brain.

Religions teach us that there’s an eternal soul. The fear of death and the desire to live forever makes the idea of the soul a very appealing fiction. I have memories of loved ones that have passed away and it is through human imagination and these memories that I can project their persona into the present and imagine what they may think if they were still alive. Our imaginations have a powerful ability to trick and confuse the reality in our minds. Combining imagination with the vision of someone that actually existed can make their soul and essence of their existence appear to be real and eternal. Early humans and their ancestor worship led to the development of the eternal soul concept in later religions along with a heaven to hold our souls.

I have no sense of my personality or thoughts before I was born. The growth of our persona over the course of our lives leads me to believe there isn’t an eternal aspect to our essence of self. There should be some signs of our mental abilities and growth starting well before our physical human lives if we did have souls. Each person starts as a blank slate and a sponge that learns from everything around them instead of bringing with them an eternal knowledge or wisdom that a soul should possess.

If there really was an eternal soul then our human lives exist in such a small blip of time that these lives are meaningless compared to eternity. This very moment that you read this and contemplate this thought would literally have no meaning or value compared to the eternal time that we aren’t human beings. An eternal soul devalues human life and makes it insignificant and unimportant compared to the importance of an eternal soul. This is a dangerous viewpoint because unknowable beliefs about these imagined souls could be argued to be more important than the human lives we know.

The importance of agnosticism is the acknowledgement that we don’t really know about these supernatural or spiritual concepts. We shouldn’t put our faith in what we don’t know regardless of how much we might imagine or believe such things could be true. What we do know about our very real human lives should always be the most important concept that guides us.

I know I’m definitely a human being and not an immortal soul momentarily possessing this body. Every fiber of my being tells me I really do need this body to exist and my death will be the end of me. It doesn’t make sense to make the giant leap of faith to believe in my soul since it conflicts with that feeling of life inside my physical body and mind.

Self-Preservation

In response to Norman’s comment to the previous post, I don’t think humans are the only animals intelligent enough to extrapolate the evidence of the past and arrive at the conclusion that death is inevitable. I wouldn’t want to see the experiments for it, but I wouldn’t think every animal is capable of observing a new type of death without ever changing their behavior because of those observations. I found some information on antipredator adaptation that relates to this thought but I don’t know if any of that adaptation is observational.

I would also think that a part of every animal’s reactions to pain and fear leading to self-preservation are built from genetic memory and evolutionary survival of animals that correctly felt pain and feared the right predators and risks. Norman mentioned the “survival instinct” and from that I read a few interesting things on what instinctual behavior really is. I found that a “survival instinct” doesn’t follow the scientific definition for an instinct though certain instincts contribute to the survival of the species such as newly hatched sea turtles heading toward the ocean.

Our intelligence is our greatest asset but we still have more basic animal traits that confuse us. Our mythological religions are born out of self-preservation’s fear of death. We are definitely capable of observing death and fearing it so the appeal of religion to ease those fears. A false sense of safety for our self-preservation is probably one of the big reasons people refuse to let go of religious beliefs. This is covered a little in a recent article called Religious Belief Declining Very Slowly Around the World at prospect.org:

And immortality is, after all, religion’s killer app. The need to confront and overcome the horrible finality of death—grim, merciless, terrifying, bleak death— is one of the principal reasons religion came into being in the first place, and the reason it persists no matter how much its ground of explanation is encroached on by science. It’s no accident that every religion that ever existed promises some form of immortality. People will tolerate an awful lot of cognitive dissonance to hold on to that promise.

In the end, I don’t really know what will happen with my persona after I die. I can only assume that with the passing of my physical body that the most logical outcome is that I completely cease to exist. However, if my consciousness did continue on after my physical death then I can say with all certainty that I wouldn’t be a surprised atheist by the event, because I’m also a “devout” agnostic that holds firm to the fact that I don’t really know until I get there so there’s no sense in worrying too much about it because I know I will get to that physical end soon enough. I’m very certain that the religions of the world are wrong concerning our immortality because their methods of discovery for their claimed knowledge can’t be any more capable of knowing the truth any more than anything I’m doing when I write the great truths of the universe. LOL Widespread concurrence of your ravings and writings doesn’t make it true!

The most devoutly religious people are probably the ones that are most fearful of an inevitable death. Agnostic atheists, freethinkers, and even the casually religious are the ones that don’t fear death as much and understand it for what it really appears to be. The ironic part of that is that I would think human evolution should favor the non-religious over time because those that are the true believers are more likely to not mind an early death and engage in risky and self destructive behaviors such as suicide bombings. It’s a reason why religions have to make suicide a sin, because if they made suicide an unqualified virtue then the devout’s desire for heaven should lead to more suicides as they quicken their move to the more perfect immortality.

If we really could have immortality in heaven, then this physical existence is a near infinitely short and insignificant part of our immortal lives so it makes no sense at all to put any real importance in our human existence. I wish people didn’t believe in their immortality for the only reason that this line of thinking makes the insanely devout capable of doing such awful things because they see no importance in humanity as it compares to heaven. Their human self-preservation becomes twisted into an immortal self-preservation where they fear loss of the immortality so much it overrides their fear of human death and impacts their ability to care about the human death of others.

It’s scary, but having written this out I think I understand when a religious person says with such seriousness that they are praying for and “fear” for my soul. I don’t want anyone to put more importance in an imagined immortality for me than in my definite human mortality because there’s always the possibility these religious people will develop some twisted scheme for “protecting” my immortality at the cost of my human morality. Human rights should always trump religious rights for this reason!