I recently picked up a book, the Accidental Masterpiece in which the author speaks of the impact of art on our lives. And says, also, that we can choose to pull that impact into our lives, to create our own art or just a life informed by art, or perhaps, we can even choose a life transformed by art. And art may be ours for the defining.
arguably, are love, death, and sex in no particular ranking. There are aspects or items in life, such as beauty, architecture, or nature which seem to boost us toward those vehicles of transcendence.
Eric Maisel tells us we can create a special place, real or imaginary, which will be a safe, but inspiring place to write. I think what we are doing in setting up that place is creating a spiritual dwelling place for ourselves. (I’m hesitant to use the example, but a church is such a place set up by its members for the spiritual sense it gives them—or failing that—a place for the default rituals—the next best thing.)
For us, receivers of the revealed wisdom that we are “spiritual beings in a secular universe,” we can choose what is spiritual and what is art and what nourishes the human spirit. Those things, those places, those ideas that we can bring together, that we can curate, accumulate, create. We may engage in our own practice of art so it will inspire us further.
This is no small item. Inspiring ourselves. Even when inspired by something or someone else we participate in our own inspiration. Certainly, we must. Art and other creative acts are never truly isolated. We bring them forth as products of ourselves, our world, and our culture.
So it is with our writing, or it can be. This is true, also, of those who don’t think of themselves as writers. Writing is an art or craft like many other endeavors. What you get out of it is in relation to what you put into it.
The short lesson on writing is this: write, revise, and keep going. Perfection is an illusion. Don’t get hung up on it. It doesn’t matter what you write, but write what you want. As an endeavor of the human spirit, write randomly. Leave the topic open. Just keep writing.
After a few pages, some things will draw your attention. Different categories of things. Some things will seem to be negatives—make a note to eliminate or overcome them and move on to write in other directions. Some goal, wish, or desire may pop out of the writing. Acknowledge it and keep writing.
When you’re at this for a while two spiritual things (our secular human spirit) will materialize: What it takes to nurture your spirit and What it is that you do that nurtures your spirit. For me, just this kind of writing does it.
Other things may suggest themselves through your writing that you can do—nature walks, camping trips, art or other museums, or whatever you may find. If you try it all and run out of things come back and write at it some more.
You may just find that words, thoughts, and concepts may do it for you. That is, they may elevate your spirit, your mood, your outlook. You may be moved to write about that experience for others. Even in that process you may find nurturance for your very human spirit, that soul-like thing. If each of us gets the spiritual nurturance we need, we are less likely to point angrily at each other and say, You spoiled my happiness.
Dayton Freethought members clashed over definitions at a recent gathering on the topic of spiritual atheism. More definitions flew around the room than one might have expected.
Surprisingly, the most significant clash was over the meaning of the term atheism. With respect to the definition of atheism, it’s true that it literally means there is no god. We found in discussion, however, that a number of members of Dayton Freethought who claim the title atheist for themselves also have a range of beliefs with respect to a spiritual realm or at least some energies that go beyond strict materialism. I think some who call themselves atheist could also be said to be agnostic about a spiritual realm.
A number of folks in attendance stated that atheism means a person doesn’t believe in anything spiritual. At least, technically, though, some atheists evidently can and do believe in something overtly spiritual. Who’s right? These spiritual atheists can stand on the technical interpretation of the definition of atheism to prove their case.
Still, there has been a common usage of atheism that not only negates any god, but anything nonmaterial as well. I think in much of western culture, atheism has meant materialism. I checked the usage of the word with a number of major writers on the topic of atheism and believe they do mean atheism in the sense that negates anything spiritual. Reading their work to get the context showed it to be consistent with materialism. That was my use of the term and many others at the Dayton Freethought meeting.
Now to complicate this further, writers like Steve Antinoff, Spiritual Atheism, (and myself) talk of a spiritual atheism that does not imply a spiritual realm, supernatural beings or events, or anything nonmaterial.
I’ll speak only for myself. I talk of the traditional sense of atheism consistent with materialism. Given a material world with no supernatural realm, no spooky events, no energies that arise from nonmaterial sources, I parse the word “spiritual” in two ways:
1. This null set of things that believers meant, but that do not exist, and therefore, I set aside as indicating nothing in the real world.
2: (Given the absence of a spiritual/supernatural realm, we potentially are all equally spiritual. It’s all natural and a product of human minds, culture, and genes.) Spiritual in this sense, is the sense of what is real and what takes place within and between humans in the real world. This is what makes us feel a certain spiritual nurturance has taken place. Some call it life-affirming. Others might call it ennobling the human spirit.
What makes me think I have the right to use the word spiritual in this latter sense? Well, because of the reality that spirituality must conform to. I think it is a response we make to an inborn drive for spiritual fulfillment. Not exactly a God Gene, but still a certain drive, one that sponsors religion.
Our rockstar atheists, Dawkins & Dennett, don’t think religion could have ever had benefits to humankind to the extent that it would have become an evolutionary adaptation. Many scientists in the most relevant fields do believe religion is in our genes for several reasons.
1. Universality. Religion is in every culture on earth now and across time as far as we can tell. Universality is the hallmark of a significant evolutionary adaptation.
2. Conversely, No cultures unmarked by religion have survived to the present whether winnowed by competition among groups or by simply not making it through cataclysmic population bottle necks, Mount Tobu eruption, etc.
3. People treat their religions as if vitally important. They’re tenacious about their beliefs and often organize socially on that basis alone.
4. Twins reared apart. Identical twins reared in households with differing levels of religious exuberance match their twin’s religious interest, practice, and activity rather than that of the families who raised them.
(Too involved to fully develop here, I do develop that thesis in my book, see it at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Religion-Showing-Earlier-Evolution-Thought/dp/1458208931)
At any rate, if all the spirituality the world has ever known has occurred as natural phenomena in response to our desire for it supported by our genes, then all actual spirituality has come from within us alone. Every religiously inspired accomplishment by believers, Michelangelo’s David and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, every cathedral ever built, and anything inspired by a god or any object of worship all come from the same organic source potentially within every human. No dreamed of or contemplated god or saint or spiritual being was at the root cause of the spiritual experience. Though believers may have made these accomplishments inspired by thoughts of such beings, no such beings exist, therefore, any spirituality or spiritual events are of a secular, worldly nature and, arguably, possible for anyone to have.
Would such a spiritual drive be sufficient for that inspiration? Believers and nonbelievers alike enjoy neurochemical rewards for a number of thoughts and actions. That’s the payoff for religiously and secularly inspired accomplishments. Like our artistic and academic achievements, religio-spiritual accomplishments bring neurochemical rewards, pleasure, and/or loftly, uplifting feelings. (See any article on the mutation about 25,000 years ago that doubled the dopamine receptors in the brain.)
So the drive to achieve the spiritual and the reward for achieving it, are all we have. Dopamine, serotonin, and other neurochemicals released internally to give us the reward for that.
Through the use of this filter that we have applied, we have eliminated the misunderstood origin and aspects of spirituality and left us with only the garden variety of spirituality—only what could have occurred in a material world. Why consider this paler version of spirituality? Because we have it. Our genes drive us toward it; we need it. Our psychology, our brains, and our neurochemistry are structured to reward it. Ultimately, when religion is understood and tamed our secular spirituality will serve us well.
|Perhaps, this is just the season of our discontent. Is the atheism movement big enough for all of us? If Christianity is big enough for all of them, I would think so. But more to the point, do we, can we, leave the “old atheists” behind? And the New Atheists, too? And seek a better destination, in the land of neo-atheists or Atheists+plus where we will reveal only the better angels of our nature?
In the branch of atheism that I’ve suggested as neo-atheists, I suggest that we will make the most progress by interacting with believers, showing them we are people of goodwill, having common-ground discussions with them, perhaps doing joint humanitarian projects. Nothing new here, but it takes each of us a while to “process” our thoughts and feelings to be ready for such a step.
Many of us were largely cast as the lot we found ourselves to be in by Christians. Our “godless” natures and other self-applied apellations/epithets can be traced back to our outcast origins. For us, we bought into Christian culture’s role ascribed for us as “bad boys” and the like.
There was, or is, in the zeitgeist the sense that atheists are the demonseed, blasphemers, heretics. Bastards of our type, the holy books said, should be stoned to death. It was easier to stay in the closet than face all that. As we come out, the liberation is heady. It can make us giddy, even a little immature.
Those that came from a different background–say a nonbelieving family–free from such baggage, are more functional than those of us who were liberated later in life. Are these the Eloy who would move on?
Humanity is a story of assent, perhaps, even a spiritual story. To the extent that each of us can incorporate that assent, emulate it, in our lives, we strive for an upward climb. Can we grow as people? Yes. Do we grow?
Here are a few excerpts from a discussion thread on the email blog Humanist Digest.
Mike was also in the conversation as was Paat who said, “…the term, religion; it does indeed, for Americans in particular, denote supernatural.”
I responded to the others in this line of quesitoning:
“Gary & Jack,
RE: What is religion?
As a forty year philosophy major I know the temptation to define religion
from that viewpoint, but it incorporates too little science in the opinion.
Sociologists have been taking a serious crack at for a hundred years now.
Many have hunkered down and affirmed their favorite definition from that
Dennett broke the spell on placing religion above scientific study and
though he is a philosopher, it is of science. Though he does not agree, no
explanation of why we have religion seemed remotely equal to the reality of
it until I came to see it as an evolutionary adaptation*. Nothing short of
that explains its universality across human cultures or the radical depth of
its reach to humanity’s core.
(Overly summarized) Religion is that species specific behavior [most] people
exhibit in response to the innate urge to express their religiosity
[religiousness, spirituality]. This behavior is rewarded in a number of
ways, but the genetic support largely comes from the release of the
neurochemicals of pleasure: dopamine, serotonin, and others.
The point being, for those who place their humanism and respond to it in the
same way members of a religion do, it may be their religion. For others, it
may be a secular placeholder, for others, an intellectual pursuit.
*See THE FAITH INSTINCT by Nicholas Wade for a neutral treatment; See: Religion is God’s Way
of Showing Us it’s a lot earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought for a
nonbeliever’s perspective [browser search: Amazon Douglas Falknor].
Mike made an oberservation that I commented on: “I think Michael brings up a good point and the tip of the iceberg when he says, “[people] will still see religion as being about faith based belief in the supernatural.”
I’ll more than admit that it isn’t the evolutionary source of religion that’s the problem. It’s the incongruity between that source and what the religious THINK is the source of their religion.
I think there are so many attempts at defining religion, and so many that fall short, because of the nature of the “impulse.” If the religious imperative, written in our genes, says nothing more specific than “satisfy the religious urge,” and those genes, given normal variability to start with, undergo replication a few billion times, consider all the errors, mutations, and added variability that normally occurs across isolated populations.
Consider further, the internal rewards for that “religious drive” and how the neurochemical, psychological, and social rewards must be differently programmed, even nuanced in our genes and epigenes, across evolutionary time and global distances.
Consider, too, the cultural differences that have modified the expression of “spiritual desire” [not trying to confuse the issue, but to show how different this religiosity can be] across all cultures. Given enough time, culture too, can seep (feedback) into our heritable characteristics.
Consider all the iterations of religious expression from animism to Catholicism, from Confucianism to voodoo. Isn’t it this same predisposition for religiousness that has driven tribal members to the point of trance through continual rhythmic drumming and nonstop dance rituals? Or the Buddhist practitioner to seek enlightenment?
Now put a definition to this based solely on the person’s activities and desires to relate to what he considers the divine. Without some consideration of all the above and more, there’s going to be little common agreement. Instead of the different experiences of the “eight blind men and the elephant” we will be like the eight blind men and the thousand-headed hydra.
WHAT DO YOU THINK RELIGION IS? AND WHY?
Here are a few links that might be of interest to you. If you have others to share, send them to us in your comments. Tell us something about them.
Without a doubt the best discussion forum(s) I’ve seen. Can be large numbers of participants and commenters.
AUDIO PODCASTS ***** (five stars) Has been a great listen; many intelligent and in-depth interviews archived many author-scientists (makes this a great source for new books and an insight into their content. The website says they are on a short hiatus, but will return to the “air.” Prior format included a new post every Monday.
Audio Podcasts. Another audio podcast; haven’t listened lately.
A number of bloggers who choose to come together under the rubric of freethought. Wide ranging social commentary.
Do you have any online sources that you would recommend?
The question occurs, why the title to my current book, Religion is God’s Way of Showing Us it’s earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought? Does it take a cheap shot a religion? Is it unnecessarily cryptic?
Even though it’s not literally true that any god gave us religion, most believers must certainly think that religion has a divine sanction as well as proceeding from their deity, or in the absence of one, their sacred supernatural source.
Who, then, is shown the marker of religion revealing that we haven’t evolved beyond religion? I would say those who get an accurate picture of our evolution and religion’s place in it. To the consternation of the fundamentalist, I would say religion was an evolutionary adaptation that was necessary for the survival of every existing human population of today. But, too, it can be to the chagrin of the nonbeliever.
Religion is a product of evolution
Why to the fundamentalist’s consternation? Rather than the study of human evolution being the sin of fallen angels, it appears that religion is a product of human evolution such that we ascendant “apes” were equipped with it by natural selection.
The truth will set us free!
The truth is, it will take a little longer. The mass exodus to humanism didn’t happen as predicted. And this because religion was underestimated by nonbelievers who had examined philosophically and logically its truth value and, yet, overlooked its strength and contribution as an adaptation. No modern society of any significance survived until today without it.
Yes, religion has waned in some areas such as Europe, but that’s the lifecycle of a religion, not all religion. Certainly, we nonbelievers would all like to see the final enlightenment. Each individual religion can wane and cultures and civilizations can evolve and advance, but religion’s grip on humanity is strong enough that it hasn’t let go so far. If humanity had been ready, we would have seen religion’s end in the Classical Period. Yet even after the gods of Greece and Rome became a farce, piety was extolled and blasphemy punished. Rather, we saw the rise of Christianity because even the more enlightened Greco-Roman culture was not done with religion. The balance of humanity lagged further behind than that.
Certainly, the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens) are not interested in saying religion is or was good for humanity. I can sympathize with that. At the same time, there are a number of scientists, writers, and thinkers who do say matter of factly that they believe some predisposition to religion is in our genes.
I can’t give you a specific episode, but I’ve heard Chris Mooney on Center for Inquiry’s internet/radio podcast, Point of Inquiry, get an affirmative answer to the various iterations of the question (i.e., a heritable component to human religiosity).
I credit Pinky with a similar sentiment in her comment recently on this blog, and in a way, it’s an interpretation or restatement of the book title in question: “I am vastly disappointed in my species. Homo Sapiens Sapiens have had plenty of time to grow up, or at least to have made more of an effort to mature, but the religious keep busy squashing forward movement.”
(This is similar to the previous post, but the House Armed Services Committee did pass this de-Enlightenment legislation. There’s a URL at the bottom of the previous post if you think you want to hear Buck McKeon. I think he’ll prove you wrong.)
Chairman McKeon said if there were atheist chaplains, they would tell dying soldiers they would be “worm food.” Alternatively, when Rep. Fleming was asked what a Christian chaplain would tell a dying atheist soldier whom he believed would go to hell. Fleming said the Christian chaplain should offer the dying atheist soldier salvation through the Bible.
The last statement underlines the intent of the Military Religious Freedom (a malapropish misnomer in the long tradition of military and governmental oxymorons) Protection Act which became an amendment to a defense authorization bill which states that it is all right for believers of “a religion” to proselytize that faith to others.
The typical nonbeliever wouldn’t consider telling any dying soldier they might be “worm food” let alone a humanist chaplain. It’s a ludicrous proposition that he or she would do anything less than hold high esteem for an individual of any or no belief. This is because the average humanist believes that we all have an intrinsic human worth and that the human spirit is noble and a Humanist celebrant or chaplain is going to embody those qualities at a minimum. These congressmen are demonstrating that they do not value our service men and women in the same way.
Shouldn’t a chaplain to our men and women in uniform respect the faith tradition or beliefs of that person? That’s what a Humanist chaplain would do. But you have the congressmen’s words on it, that’s not what a Christian chaplain should do: They should offer the dying atheist soldier salvation through the Bible. This amendment supports that, but it is a one way street. Nonbelievers will have no “religious freedom” of their own protecting them from such inconsiderate behavior.
Gentlemen, you have our service members at too much of a disadvantage. They deserve better from you than this punishment for not being Christians. You can impose your will by a majority vote, but you can’t make it right or just. Are you treating the nonbelieving service members the way you want to be treated?
I take it these congressmen don’t feel the same nor do they feel that the men and women in uniform deserve equal treatment either. If they did, they’d ask each service member what kind of (faith) service they’d like, and it would be given.
It is possible for a bigoted person to go through a process of conversion. Our fellow Americans, bigoted though they may be, are our bigots and our brothers. As the humanism they denigrate would tell them, if they’d listen, all men are brothers. We must these help make these men better Christians. We must do this because as humanists we are our brothers’ keepers ..and we have no god that we would put before them.
Since only Christianity proselytizes, perhaps all Christians in the nation should weigh in. Tell these congressmen if you’re with them or against them. If we are not to judge you by your silence, speak up this one time. These men and women in uniform can’t speak up. They are at the mercy of the chain of command and it is to, and about, that chain of command they would have to complain—a career-ending move at best.