Sunday, May 17, 2009

I watched Daniel Dennet's presentation at TED recently, and was struck when he mentioned that "Every time you read it or say it, you make another copy in your brain".

This can be very useful when studying. In college I would carry a single small notebook in my purse, and jot down practically every single word one of my professors would say. Once I got home, I'd recopy these notes into separate notebooks for each course. Each weekend, I'd review the notes for each course, and as exams approached, I'd go over them once again. For classes which required a lot of memorization of specific facts or definitions, I'd also make flash cards, and keep these in my back pocket to review while standing in line or between classes or at red lights in traffic. I made repeated copies of the information in my brain, so that I could recall it with ease in the high-pressure setting of an exam. I would know the right answers, because I had drilled myself on them so many times.

I got to thinking about what this meant in terms of religious practice. As a child, prayer was woven into the fabric of everyday life. We prayed over meals, in the mornings before traveling, and at night before going to bed. We went to church every week, at least once a week, and sang the same songs over and over every year. We made copy after copy after copy of these ideas in our brains. Perhaps this is exactly why so many religions emphasize the importance of daily devotions, bible studies, offices of prayer, and weekly church attendance. Each of these activities acts as a form of memorization, embedding the ideas more and more thoroughly into our minds, so that they occur to as the "right" answers, much as the notes I studied before exams.

I quit attending church services regularly after my son was born. For one thing, I was tired all the time. He was sickly as a young child, and I was nursing him, which was difficult when the church wanted me to leave him in the nursery, where he wouldn't be a distraction during the service. I also didn't fit very well in my "Sunday best" anymore with the addition of baby weight, and happened to break my ankle when my son was only a few weeks old. The combination left me at home a lot of Sunday mornings. As time went on and I could reasonably have begun attending services regularly again, I had begun to appreciate the heathen thrill of sleeping in, or lounging around in my pajamas, on a Sunday morning. I didn't quit attending church because I didn't believe in God, but as I failed to go to church, my belief waned. I'm not sure it would have been as easy for me to disbelieve as it was, if I'd been hearing the counter-message "God is true, God is real, God is here, God loves you, God cares inordinately about your sex life" every single weekend.

Many former believers I know talk about still having fears of hell, or dreams about church attendance, long after they leave their faith behind. I think this concept of "making another copy in your brain" may be the root of it. There are some things I learned in college I doubt I'll ever forget, like the principals involved in the "Corrupt Bargain of 1824" (when John Quincy Adams stole the election from Andrew Jackson). In the same way, I don't know that I'll ever forget the words and sign language to "Jesus Loves the Little Children" which I must have sung a thousand times in my early years of life. So when thoughts of God or Christian songs pop into my head, I don't need to give them any more credibility than the memories that they are. I was taught a myth as truth for over 20 years; it seems reasonable to believe, it may take some time before these ideas fade. In the meanwhile, I can study and drill and read and write over and over again the things I know ascertain to be true - the universe is a weird and wonderful place, no more designed for me than for the influenza virus. And I'm going to enjoy every guilt-free moment of the brief life I have in it.

1 comment:

  1. I was brought up in Rome, right next to the Vatican. But my antidote came in the shape of my grandfather, who hated priests so he used to take me to the cinema on Sunday mornings. Like the film Cinema Paradiso. I could never understand what the priests were talking about anyway... it made absolutely no sense to a five-year-old intellectual! :-)

    Oh yeah, nearly forgot - have added your blog to World Beyond Belief, and included in the RSS feed.

    Thanks for letting me know about your blog.