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​American Prophet

by Ed Raymond | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Gadfly | June 12th, 2019

Bob Dylan: “You Better Start Swimmin’ Or You’ll Sink Like A Stone”
I was shocked when Hibbing native Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. I think he was, too. I had always enjoyed his songs as great poetry, but I didn’t care for his gravelly voice, twanging guitar—and sometimes his stage attitude. He has performed in 3,000 concerts around the world. I have felt his songs were really accurate and significant message-poems about people and incidents in this country. He often spoke of social struggles and political protests surrounded by thoughts of love and religion. I finally read his Nobel acceptance speech. Now I think he deserved the prize. He pays particular attention to three books he read in high school: “Moby Dick,” “All Quiet on The Western Front,” and “The Odyssey.” He reviews the three in his speech, writing: “They are specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them.”

Dylan is now 79 and still is a chronicler of what’s happening in this country. I’m really struck by his summary of American life in his song “The Times They Are A-Changin.”

“Come gather round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’ then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin.”

The song is an inclusive metaphor of what we are facing today: climate change, political divisions, religious extremism, economic inequality, homosexuality and the resulting gender identities, and racism. It’s a plea for all of us “to start swimmin’” or we will “sink like a stone” into the maelstrom. Dylan continues the plea made by English poet William Wordsworth over 200 years ago in a short poem.

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;--
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

There were two news stories on May 27 about human behavior that made me think of Dylan’s songs. One story was about Shawn Smith, a Webber Falls, Oklahoma volunteer firefighter, who worked with human and animal rescue teams risking their lives rescuing people and pets from swirling high flood waters. They rescued frightened pets stranded in homes and trees. Dogs and cats had climbed trees to escape the waters so the rescuers had to climb trees to get them. Why did Smith and his fellow rescuers rescue pets? Smith said: “They need rescue, they need help, and they don’t have the ability to help themselves, like we do. This is our home. These are our friends and family. Our animals are our family as well.”

The other story was taking place on the other side of the world on 29,029 ft. Mt. Everest where over 100 climbers were positioned in what is called the “dead zone” waiting to step on the 60 sq. ft. summit. Elia Saikaly, a filmmaker, made it to the top that day, and later described his experience on Instagram: “I cannot believe what I saw up there. Death, Carnage, Lineups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at Camp 4. People who tried to turn back who ended up dying. People being dragged down. Walking over bodies. Everything you read in the sensational headlines all played out on our summit night.”

What Does Captain Ahab Have In Common With Climbers Of The Seven Summits?
In his Nobel lecture Dylan reviewed his reactions to a book he had read 60 years before being named the winner of the Nobel Prize. The quest of Captain Ahab becomes a part of many of his songs: “The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab—captain of a ship named the Pequod—an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It is an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby Dick the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil.”

Finally Ahab spots Moby Dick and attacks him for three days in whale boats. Moby destroys two whaleboats and on the third day rams the Pequod and sinks it. Captain Ahab ends up tangled in the lines of his harpooners and sinks “like a stone” to a watery grave.

The pursuit of Moby Dick by Ahab is very much like the pursuit of the Mt. Everest summit by mountain climbers from around the world—the prepared and the unprepared. People die on the mountain for all kinds of reasons—just like Captain Ahab dragged to his watery grave by his harpoons stuck in Moby Dick.

Since Everest was first climbed about 300 have died in the attempt, and it’s estimated that over 100 bodies are still on its slopes because of falls, altitude sickness, storms, avalanches, and lack of oxygen. Veteran guide Kami Rita Sherpa holds the record for climbing it 24 times, but just in recent times he has seen parts and complete bodies during his climbs. He says: “Finding bones has become the new normal for us.” Everest glaciers are rapidly melting, thus exposing bones, equipment, and sometimes full corpses. Some bodies are still totally preserved in ice.

Why so many people want to climb Everest that costs them about $70,000 is difficult to answer. I guess my favorite is “Because it’s there.” Perhaps potential climbers should talk to Rizza Alee, a young man from Kashmir who climbed it in May for the first time. He was absolutely stunned by the lack of empathy and cooperation among struggling climbers. He reported: “I saw some people like they had no emotions. I asked people for water and no one gave me any. People are really obsessed with the summit. They are ready to kill themselves for the summit. I was not prepared to see sick climbers being dragged down the mountain by Sherpas or the surreal experience of finding dead bodies.” On his way back down he passed two more dead bodies in their tents. They were not “swimmin’” on the mountain any longer.

A Scientific Study: Religious Beliefs Diminish Curiosity, Creativity, and Open-Minds
There is no question that most religious beliefs are not updated when scientific evidence and new theories emerge from research. Attitudes about homosexuals have changed dramatically over a relatively short time because of advances in the fields of genetics. Dozens of gender identities have been discovered (binary, intersex, asexual, etc). But some religious fundamentalists refuse to adopt the scientific evidence. As an example, Florida Republican State Representative Mike Hill is on tape discussing the possibility of introducing legislation to kill gay people. He is basing his idea on 1 Corinthians that proclaims a man who has a sexual affair with another man shall be put to death. Hill is a proud conservative who describes himself as “Pro Life! Pro Guns! Pro Jesus!” He insists homosexuality is “a behavior, and it’s a choice.” He also said he had received “divine inspiration” from God to sponsor an Alabama-type abortion bill. Hill might have prefrontal cortex functional impairment.

A study in the journal Neuropsychologia claims that damage to certain areas of the prefrontal cortex of the brain diminishes “cognitive flexibility and openness” and promotes religious fundamentalism. Religious beliefs are based on supernatural events and entities assumed by many people to be real. Religious beliefs are often changed by scientific evidence. Certainly some of the religious views learned from Old Testament prophets about homosexuality have been changed by scientific evidence gained by the study of intricacies of the human body, particularly chromosomes and genes. Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics, as an example, emphasize traditional religious texts and rituals and discourage challenges to religious and social issues. Think of the attitudes about abortion, same-sex marriage, and gay conversion therapy.

Fundamentalists are often quite aggressive towards individuals and groups that do not share their set of supernatural beliefs, and generally reject scientific evidence that threatens their worldview. They have great difficulty, to use Dylan’s words, admitting “that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone”—with scientific evidence of changing times. The study ends with this summary: “Since religious beliefs play a massive role in driving and influencing human behavior throughout the world, it is important to understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological and neurological perspective.”

A Man of Science and Faith
Dr. Francis Collins was the leader of the Human Genome Project that researched the field of genetics. He is the current director of the National Institutes of Health. He is also the founder of the Biologos Foundation, a discussion and work group that studies the intersection of Christianity and science. He answers three questions in the National Geographic magazine.

1. Are science and religion compatible? I am privileged to be somebody who tries to understand nature using the tools of science. But it is also clear that there are some important questions that science cannot really answer. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are we here? In those domains I have found that faith provides a better path to answers. I find it oddly anachronistic that in today’s culture there seems to be a widespread presumption that scientific and spiritual views are incompatible.

2. When people think of those views as incompatible, what is lost? Science and faith can actually be mutually enriching and complementary once their proper domains are understood and respected. Extreme cartoons representing antagonistic perspectives on either end of the spectrum are often the ones that get attention, but most people live somewhere in the middle.

3. You have said that a blooming flower is not a miracle since we know how that happens. As a geneticist, you’ve studied human life at a fundamental level. Is there a miracle woven in there somewhere? Oh, yes. At the most fundamental level . There's a miracle that there’s a universe at all. It’s a miracle that it has order, fine-tuning that allows the possibility of complexity, and laws that follow precise mathematical formulas. Contemplating this, an open-minded observer is almost forced to conclude that there must be “mind” behind all this. To me, that qualifies as a miracle, a profound truth that lies outside of scientific explanation.

Another Record For Trump
According to members of the Union of Concerned Scientists the Trump administration has just broken the record of George Bush for ignoring science 98 times in making policy decisions by ignoring scientific facts 100 times. The result according to experts: “Ignoring science will harm people across the country, especially the most disenfranchised. The rollback of protection from exposure to dangerous chemicals means that more people will become ill and develop chronic diseases.”

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