Tonight at 11: Bullshit defines reality December 2, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: bullshit, meaning
I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:
Money shot from the study:
Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.
I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra (who is named in the journal article several time).
It’s a short little book (it’s actually quite physically small, and it resides on my bookshelf atop my study Bible, because I follow directions well, and store it on bullshit.
My mind is strange.
In any case, the article quotes the book is defining “bullshit” as being “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” Not a lie, per se, but without making the effort to be supported by good thinking or skepticism, let’s say.
The article elaborates:
Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”
So, it’s like many conservative talking points, theology (I repeat myself!), or much of postmodernist philosophy. It is words that have syntactic structure which conform to normal communication, but one cannot fathom a meaning except, in the best cases, in some vaguely poetic manner.
And poetry (I’ve been reading Tennyson recently) does often occupy a universe where the limits of normal expression get stretched, but bullshit seems to be the point where it breaks. Charting the difference between these two is difficult, for sure. I’m sure some fans of Deepak Chopra would retort that those of us critical of his “bullshit” are failing to see the meaning due to a lack of imagination or something, but I do think there is a line where poetic expression leads nowhere, and that “nowhere” is precisely Bullshitland.
That is, there is a point where the art of language skews into an expression which cannot be mapped to reality. And yet…
And yet there is this:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesDid gyre and gimble in the wabe:All mimsy were the borogoves,And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!Beware the Jubjub bird, and shunThe frumious Bandersnatch!”…
This is one of MC Escher’s many drawings. It exists in 2 dimensions, and hints at a 3 dimensional world which cannot exist…at least not in the way that it’s depicted. It is using the expected tools of drawing, which is usually a representation of the real world in 2 dimensional form, and breaks the form so that it is, in a sense, bullshit.
But we can glean some kind meaning from it. This meaning, a commentary upon perception, dimension, and form, is one that transcends the media. It supervenes and emerges from it, a true emergent property, and teaches us something about our perception and meaning.
Bullshit does something similar. It defines, for us, the shape, limits, and boundaries of meaning. It is a cautionary tale of how to keep within the bounds of what language and reality can do together, and what they cannot do together.
It says to us, in a sense, “beyond here are dragons.” It defines the limits of reality, as we can express it in words, and when we verge nearer to it’s boundaries, with poetry, art, postmodern deconstruction of meaning and perception, we start to better define what is real and what is not real.
In a sense, it is true irony. Bullshit is what defines the edges of reality. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything beyond that boundary.
It’s sort of like how death defines life, but there is nothing beyond it. Believing that the bullshit contains anything meaningful is, conceptually, similar to believing in an afterlife.
There isn’t an afterlife. So eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Meaning of the Jesus Story; History v. mythology November 22, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: Christianity, history, Jesus, meaning, mythology, religion
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I was just catching up on some blogs this morning and read Jerry Coyne’s thoughts on the virgin birth, the resurrection, and their importance in Christian (specifically Catholic) faith. Towards the end, he says this:
…as has always been clear, the things that to Christians are non-negotiable “truths” of the Bible are those fables on which their faith rests most heavily. Therefore they can dispense with the parting of the Red Sea and the curing of lepers, [but] not with the Resurrection, which is the most important fable that Christians must accept as literal truth.
But if that’s the case, then why not treat Adam and Eve likewise?. For without the Original Duo, and Original Sin, the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus would make no sense (as they say, “Did Jesus die for a metaphor?”).
It is a set of points that I have thought about (and probably written about) myself over the years. But it got me thinking; How do we approach the significance of an idea depending on how historically reliable it is? How do we think about the meaning of an act if we think it really happened versus if it is a mythological metaphor for something? How do the standards of import differ in contrasting history from mythology?
If a friend took off work to do you a favor, that would be appreciated and would have some real import. If a person were to push you out of the way of a car, saving your life and sacrificing theirs, that has more import. For many, Jesus’ sacrifice, is seen as the superlative sacrifice. Further, it transcends the mere saving of a short mortal life, and becomes the transformation of an eternal life. We are all doomed to death/separation from god/whatever and Jesus steps in to take the bullet. And many believe this really happened, and is not merely a metaphor.
But our litany of stories from various religious, philosophical, and cultural sources contains a multitude of stories with moral, social, and philosophical import, many of which attempt such universality. And it is clear, at least to me, that these stories are myths, even if they contain some historical truth to any extent. They are, in essence, products of our imagination. The complicated morals, literary structures, etc that such stories convey, and often contain high moral and philosophical import, are fancy fabrications.
And while reality may occasionally, accidentally, resemble such fabrications in terms of narrative complexity, moral import, etc, the rule is that the design of mythology is better at creating meaning and import than reality. A narrative with more complex interwoven philosophical themes, governing more broad area of impact and importance, is more likely to be mythology. The story of the New Testament, with its universal import and intended (but ultimately failed) sacrificial plot, is a good example of a story which is clearly mythological, even if potentially based on historical facts.
So, the essence to my question today foes something like the following. If I believed that the Fall of Adam and Eve, as well as the resurrection, were literal things that happened, does that mean that the import of the acts involved have more impact than if they were mere stories about the human experience? Would the fact that these actions really happened give them greater impact, emotionally and philosophically, than if they were mere stories?
Consider my example of someone taking off of work to help you with some problem; imagine that this story were part of a religious canon, rather than a thing that really happened to you. If you found this story in the New Testament or the Koran, would you be impressed by it? Probably not. But if someone really did this, for you or someone you know, it would have some importance and meaning, even if it were a small amount of such. The fact that it is real gives it more import to your life, even if the act has less moral and philosophical complexity than mythology.
The thesis is that when things really happen, their personal and social importance is greater than if they were mythological. Mythology has to be exaggerated, embellished, or at least rare to survive as a story of significance. It may be that extraordinary real events inspire such mythology in some cases, but such stories always take on legendary status the more they are told and re-told, because story-tellers have to sell the story. Thus, we will microfy the import of a story which is mythological because we understand that it is embellished, whereas reality, which sits in front of us, is not.
So, a story about a sacrifice, in order to be held as ultimate import, has to become embellished. Religion, then, is part of our story-telling nature, and only stories with universal themes and import can survive to legendary status. And while these stories sit behind our lives as an influence for our behavior and beliefs, reality continues on and we continue to act in less than superlative, but meaningful ways.
And many religious apologists argue that this is what makes religion great; it stands as an example for us and helps preserve our cultural norms and values in narrative form. And for those that believe the stories are true, there is a greater amount of reverence towards those acts (and those who perform them), beyond mere inspiration. But, for those people who don’t believe the literal truth of these religious stories,such stories can still remain as inspirational narratives, even if the non-historical nature of the story takes something away.
Of course, by not believing they literally happened, one can also criticize the import and morality of the lesson. It seems more appropriate, for many, to criticize a story rather than a real act. If we see Jesus as a metaphorical example, and not literally a person (or god) who “died” for our sins, then we can hold him up as an example (even if not a great one) of what humans can do for one-another. But if he was (and is) god, then that fact puts the story on a level of import which dwarfs any mere myth. The same story, depending on whether it is true or not, has different import.
But here’s the problem; if stories such as the all and the resurrection are literally true, including that a god is behind it all, then the distinction between mythology and reality breaks down in this respect. The basis for real actions having inflated import is that such things occur within a real of minimal control over the circumstances, whereas in a story the composer has, well, god-like control over the circumstances. A friend taking work off to help you is only in control of their own actions (taking off work and helping you), not the circumstances which led them to have to make that choice.
The story of Jesus, if we saw him as a mere human who acted in the real world, could be of great import as an inspiration towards sacrifice and love (assuming we ignore the non-loving stuff in there, of course). But as an intentional creation of an all-powerful god, the Jesus story is designed, and poorly, because a better story could have been designed. The world could have been different, the sacrifice unnecessary, and a greater story could have been written. The more true the Bible is, the less powerful its story ultimately is; the more control the author of the story has, the less impressive it is.
As a set of inspirational stories, the New Testament has some philosophical and moral import on their own, but if Jesus was real and did a lot of the stuff in the gospel accounts, then the import increases because a person actually did those things, rather than them being idealistic narratives of some authors. But if God is real, and god designed and orchestrated the whole thing, then I’m not impressed, because I think that I could write a better story than that. God didn’t just compose the narrative of Jesus, but he also composed all of the circumstances which allowed them to be necessary. In short, God is a terrible composer of stories (and universes).
The Bible, as a collection of stories, is a work of human minds and hands. It takes the nature of the world, indifferent and often unpredictable, and comes up with a set of narratives which offer some consolation and moral import. Bu those imports are inflated, exaggerated, and as a result they take on universal import through hyperbolic fabrication, rather than by being real.
We, with our imagination, intelligence and articulate genius have come up with narratives which make reality look pale in comparison. Our stories tell us about our dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears, and our height and depth of philosophical notions. But what ends up mattering are the real acts, the non-miraculous human decisions, which have a real effect on our lives. Mythology might inspire,but it can only do so via exaggeration, by figurative flashing lights and shiny objects.
And, what’s worse is that the mythology, the meaning, of the essential Christian message is flawed and many subsequent stories have surpassed them in many ways. Not only is the Christian message not truly universal, it isn’t even good. So, not only should we not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection, we should not even be inspired by such things. Fabricated acts have no real meaning in the world; they only can attempt to make reality seem pale in comparison, but often merely succeed in making themselves look artificial, forced, and Platonic.
So, while stories are fun and inspire the imagination, what ultimately matters is reality. Give me friends and lovers over a million Jesuses (Jesi?) any day.
Meaning and Happiness May 9, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: happiness, meaning, relationships, religion, theology
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I’m not going to address the canard that without god we can’t have meaning in our lives. OK, yes I am. But only briefly, and the rest will only deal with that question indirectly. Yes, it is quite obvious that people without a belief in gods have meaning in their lives. Perhaps not inherent, absolute, and cosmically significant meaning, but those things are illusory, just like gods.
I have been, since childhood, rather introspective. I do a lot of thinking about thinking, reflecting on experience, and asking simple “why…” questions about mundane things that most people take as granted. To me, the beginning of skepticism begins with the ability to ask why something is, and then asking for reasons to keep accepting it. I never merely accepted the way things are and that they need to be that way. Thus, my becoming a degenerate deviant is not surprising.
Ultimately, I think seeing polyamory, atheism, and skepticism as deviant and degenerate is, well, unfortunate and morosely funny. It does not speak well of our species that such basic values as demanding evidence for claims and then not accepting worldviews that can’t stand up to such demands is the weird thing. But I digress…
Anyway, I’m one of those annoying people who thinks asking why we do and believe certain things is good. I also am interested in various experiences. I was very interested in meditation while young, and much of what I learned and experienced during those times in my life have influenced how I see the world, how I think, and how I try and improve as a person. I “experimented” with drugs while younger (meaning I enjoyed their effects while on them), and while I have little interest in such things now, I am glad that I had those experiences.
When I got to college, I was very interested in taking as many courses that dealt with religion, philosophy, and anthropology as I could. I was interested in questions about meaning, belief, and knowledge in culture and psychology. Is there any surprise that I graduated with a degree in ‘religious anthropology”? Is there any surprise that I write about religion, think about religion, and ultimately oppose religion?
I knew that the history of ideas which dealt with meaning, experience, etc are contained in philosophy, theology, and religion. I also knew that I didn’t believe in any gods, had strong issues with religions, both organized and less-than-organized, and that I had an attraction to science and philosophy.
After reading religious thinkers from over the centuries, including many scriptures and apologetic writing, I knew that these things had something to offer us, even if much of it was meshed with absurd theological assertions and assumptions; I knew that it is all too easy to conflate interesting psychological insights with the tradition adjacent to their origin. That is, I understood that a Catholic, Moslem, or Hindu thinker could say something interesting, insightful, or even true without that idea having any logical relevance to the theology they believed.
So, any sophisticated theologian who attempts to claim that this gnu atheist is unfamiliar with sophisticated theology, I can confidently reply that they are simply incorrect. No Courtier’s Reply can stick to me, especially since the Reply is absurd on its face.
For a few years I have thought about how we, as a community of reason, could talk about such things outside of a theological context. I mean, philosophers do it all the time, right? (And I do have a MA in philosophy). Then today I ran into this post by Dale McGowan which talks about the importance of social interactions in happiness. It is a quick review of a study about why religion makes people happier.
Essentially the point is encapsulated here, stolen from McGowan’s post, in these quotes by Chaeyoon Lim:
[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect…
and Raising Freethinkers co-author Amanda Metskas:
[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)
This is illuminating, and speaks to precisely the point that many gnus have discussed over the last few years; it is not the beliefs which make people happy (they are usually harmful), but it is the social connections that keep many people in church.
The implication, I believe, is that we do need to do more to create social environments for atheists and such. Skeptics in the pub, conventions, campus groups, etc are all great steps in that direction, even if some people take things too far in terms of emulating religion. That is, Alain de Botton is wrong precisely because he does not just want to keep the social aspects around, but he wants to keep some of the theological parts alive too.
Part of what will cultivate community, I think, will be organizing under a banner, a label (or a very small set of labels at most), and a small set of major organizations who represent what we do share, our political concerns, and our social presence. The Reason Rally was a step in defining much of these things, and the next few years will have a lot to tell us about the nature of our collective message, what organizations will be saying them, and how broad we need to be to draw people in.
We have issues, as a community, in terms of drawing in the voices of women, ethnic and racial minorities”, genderqueer people, and even blue collar secularists. I don’t know what all the solutions are, but I am keeping my ears tuned to people who offer some and will be thinking and writing about it from time to time.
I know I am guilty of many of the things that turn many people away; my writing is esoteric, my tone is sometimes harsh, and I include commentary which does not fit in with most atheists and skeptics (specifically polyamory. To what degree, if any, I may change any of this will depend on the strength of arguments, the evidence supporting said arguments, and my ability to actually change.
But I think we, the community of reason and skepticism, have a lot to say about how to create meaning in important ways and how to live lives of general contentment and happiness. Fore me, my life project to be happy lead me to atheism and polyamory, while sharpening my skeptical tools along the way. I think my story and views have something to add to this conversation.
The fallacy of cosmic purpose December 1, 2010Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: cosmic conciousness, cosmic purpose, meaning, purpose, sentience
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I was having a conversation the other day with a close friend about purpose. She said that part of what motivated her to do what she does (teach) is to do something that has meaning, but that she might not do it if there was no purpose. She said one of the things that bothers her about astronomy was the fact that it seemed to indicate that the efforts we give here on Earth are largely irrelevant on a cosmic scale. She said that she had, therefore, a faith in a purpose larger than we are; a sort of cosmic purpose.
It is certainly humbling to put ourselves in context, given what we know about the scale of the universe. Moving from where we were a few centuries ago to where we are now, we have gone from the center of a small universe to a tiny part of an immense universe. And that’s surely underestimating it!
Now, theists and other people with ideas about things spiritual tend to believe in some cosmic purpose. But even a few atheists will hold onto such notions from time to time. Perhaps Buddhism could be included into that set. In any case, these theists may not claim to know what this purpose is, but they claim to know or have faith that one exists. And if there is a god or some spiritual existence that exists in the universe, then the likelihood of this being true becomes much higher, although not necessarily the case
But, of course, I’m not one of those people that believes such things. I believe that the vast majority of the universe if non-sentient, unconscious, and inert. Stars, dust, galaxies, nebula, etc. There may be other life elsewhere (in fact, it would seem improbable if there weren’t, although we have no evidence of such life), but even if there is life it is likely an infinitesimal percentage of the universe.
It is life, sentient life specifically, for which purpose has relevance. Purpose is a thing that only applies to things that are capable of abstraction, and therefore things which are conscious. Purpose is not relevant as an attribute for things which have not sentience. It would be like talking about the effect of the strong nuclear force between pillows; it’s simply a fallacy of scale, if you would. Talking about purpose on a cosmic scale simply makes no sense.
In addition, it may actually turn out to be a category error; parts of the universe have the property of consciousness, thus the potential of the concept of purpose, but this does not apply to the whole. One cannot simply project the purpose they have at their scale (that of culture, and personal relationships), and apply it to the universe any more than they can project their concept of god onto the universe. What exists in our heads as concepts and bodies as feelings do not necessarily exist beyond us; there may be no referent to your concept of cosmic purpose or gods.
Now, one might try and argue for a kind of cosmic consciousness, or perhaps a god of some sort, but this merely becomes a distraction from the point. I’m taking for granted the absence of such things, because I am an atheist after all. I see no evidence for any cosmic awareness, sentience, nor do I know of any mechanism which could be demonstrated to be the infrastructure of such a cosmic consciousness. You see, one would have to propose some other way of creating consciousness (and therefore things like meaning and purpose) without physical brains or computers of some other kind. That, or they would have to argue something like a relationship between galaxies (perhaps based on gravity or something) that acts somewhat like a neural net, making the universe a sort of brain. A wild suggestion, indeed, and one that I doubt could stand up to the most basic of scrutiny.
What we know is that we are somewhat intelligent primates on a small rock orbiting an average star. We have purposes. My purpose here, in writing this post, is to try and make a point to you that if you think about a cosmic purpose, you may have to re-think your hypothesis. (Whether I succeed or not is hardly to the point to whether this is my purpose). But the purposes we feel, whether consciously created by ourselves or not, can only stretch so far. I will tentatively argue that the limit of this purpose-stretching is the limits of culture. The edge of our cultural influences seem to be the furthest we can stretch our purposes, it seems, because it is the limit to where our intentions can reach.
Now, perhaps there will be a day when our culture has more vast influence. And perhaps, in the distant future, we may discover a way to influence the cosmos itself. Then, and only then. can we start talking seriously about a cosmic purpose. For the moment, the concept of cosmic purpose seems to have no real referent in the world outside our minds.
And reality is that which continues to exist when we stop believing in it.
The pseudo-depth of religion October 17, 2009Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: illusion, meaning, Nietzsche, purpose, religion, truth
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We, unfortunately, live in a largely anti-intellectual and unsophisticated culture. There is not ample interest in things philosophical or subtle. I will not lament this here for its own sake, but I will mention this as a pretext to address another issue.
We are pattern seeking beings that desire meaning and purpose in life, but we are rarely exposed to the various approaches to finding these things. The depth of that search is often too terrifying to traverse, and so we try to find other ways to fulfill this need. And, lucky for us, culture and its complex structure has supplied our history with just such a function. The vast majority of people are usually exposed to one source of meaning and purpose; am ancient cultural tradition that still holds sway for many people.
I want to call it religion, but that is too simplistic in the end. It is my view that religion is a natural expression of our desire to explore the world for meaning. It is a way to look inward and in many cases to project outward what we desire to find there, and to latch onto narratives, myths, and the illusion of ‘something more’ in order to add color, depth, and importance to a world that seems meaningless.
It is a kind of metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ impulse to explain the universe in terms of intent, intelligence, and often in love. And the result of this impulse that we share are the many religions an spiritual pursuits of the world. These are the vehicles of providing meaning, purpose, and intent into an otherwise meaningless existence. And because we sense this meaninglessness often enough, we seek shelter from those cold winds of loneliness and purposelessness.
That is, people seek the part of our psychology that is responsible for the religious cultural impulse to find meaning. The easiest way to do this is to take an atavistic glance back to the introduction to such feelings; the religion of our childhood. And if not our childhood, the religion of our early attempts to look for meaning in the world. For many, groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ (or some similar group) seek to fill the insecure holes that creep into our lives in a time of emotional upheaval and change of the early tastes of freedom that college provides.
In general, whenever the insecurities and fears of life emerge, the desire to see meaning and purpose weaved into the fabric of life and reality act as a sort of blanket against the coldness of the world.
But before I continue I must hark to the whisper of a ghost which has come my way. A strange and somewhat lively sprite—lively for a dead man, anyway! A moving of thoughts tussles its way to my mind’s ear and words resolve into a thought:
Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial
And with such a deep strike into the heart the thought evaporates and the spirit haunts another. Or perhaps it has sunk so deep into me that I can no longer distinguish between it and myself. The difference—it is indifferent! But the whisper of the name of “Nietzsche” reverberates throughout and my mind returns to the task at hand.
But this spiritual visit has had a purpose, I fathom. Because in a largely unsophisticated world, the early reaching for meaning and purpose are mitigated by religion; they are softened for us by a pseudo-depth of assertions of truths that are always bolstered by nothing but faith—in other words by sheer preferential desire for them to be true.
It is common for people to scuttle through there youth while largely unconcerned with the ramblings of religious ideologies. Yes, if pressed they parrot the memories of their early exposure, but they live secularly and leave to Sundays (or some other bequeathed holy day) the quandaries of any depth. It is only to these holy days that purpose and the insecurities of meaning emerge into the sunlight of our thoughts.
We have not yet allowed the scab to form over such insecurities in order to have our fears heal. And so we protect our raw minds from the exposure to the dangerous world and we often miss the sophistication and depth which lives there while distracted by this protective preoccupation. Because we spend so much energy nursing our fears in public, we miss the true depth of the world.
And so what of true depth and subtlety? What of philosophy? Why, upon the hardship of emotional turmoil, of loss, or of dissatisfaction do people turn to their lord, to the false depth of dogma and myth rather than to do the real, hard, and growth-inspiring work of looking deep within without the lenses of faith and childhood brainwashing?
We avoid the difficult in life and revert to looking at it through Christianity or some other absurd softening of our mortality and ultimate meaninglessness. And in doing so we miss that it is our responsibility to lend meaning to our lives. We must take responsibility for how we face death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.
So often churches will remind us that in the pursuit of money, power, or otherwise transient things, happiness can only be temporary. They cannot supply real meaning for us, which we crave. But then they assert that a real happiness, a real and eternal answer may be found. But this is only an assertion. It is a promise that cannot be kept. It is another distraction from the truth that mature and aware adults have to face. It is a fantasy to cover a scary world.
The thing is that the churches who remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our earthly desires are correct. They just fail to acknowledge that they are not offering anything different. Their mystical explanations are only deep in an illusory way. Their façade is not even willing to dip its little toe into the waters of the universe out of fear that the water is too cold. And it is cold.
Warmth can only be found with one-another. And so churches, in gathering communities, are creating a mirage; it is not the message of eternal life that provides meaning and purpose, it is the company that sits upon this superficial message that supplies the meaning. It is the illusion of having eternal companions, covered by real but temporary ones, that perpetuates the illusion.
When we find meaning and purpose in shallow promises of eternity, we find not even a shallow pool in which to swim. The universe is deeper than we can comprehend. Its true beauty lies beyond the fear that is manipulated by religion which only thinks itself deep. Come and join the universe and dive into fathoms unfathomable. Rather than transcend this world, transcend your fears of it and come swim with us in oceans of reality. And when you do, you will find true warmth in the company of the disillusioned and the free.