To my mind, religion, and to a lesser extent, spirituality, are the result of the human need to have order and certainty in their lives. Because of our fast brains, we have developed the capacity to create a self-concept and have self-awareness of operating in our environment, and to ask questions of how we relate to our environments and of our existence. Questions arise from our need to know what to expect from our environments, how we are to respond to environmental cues. When we encounter events for which we have had prior experience or knowledge our brains predict what is going to happen next and take proactive, or at least reactive, steps to deal with the event. When we encounter events for which we have not had prior experience or knowledge, and no verifiable answers or responses, we become stressed; our minds must have answers and in their absence, we make them up. We follow rituals we hope will adequately deal with the frightening unknowable.
Members of our ancestral tribes, pantheists, had many gods, a different god to explain almost any external event and condition of which the primitive mind had no comprehension. As man ‘advanced’ to a greater and greater understanding of the world, the many gods became consolidated into one; people became monotheists. Science now explains thunder and lightning, and even how life began, but the fundamental questions remained: how did the universe come about? How will it end? Is the mind of man more than earth and ashes? Is there a soul? Is there ‘life’ after death? The fearful brain is desperate for answers to these unanswerable questions, and so are explained away by ‘God’. ‘God’ is unknowable, and so to answer these large questions, with ‘God’ is tautological. This is not knowledge but belief, not verifiable by observation and experiment but by faith. But because the mind abhors uncertainly it prefers magical thinking to the horror of the abyss. Religion gives people comfort, and who can blame them for that.
Religion also serves another human need, an authority over ‘right’ human behaviour so as to preserve social cohesion as against the terror of anarchy. For this reason societies tend to codify the rules that ensure desired ethical behaviour and empower some sort of priesthood to enforce these social rules in the name of some all-powerful being.
In increasingly sophisticated societies secular power has largely replaced ecclesiastical powers. The governed believe they can make objective social ethical rules to govern themselves (and an enforcement system agreed by the members of the society); religions and their priesthoods have gradually been replaced. This evolution of human societies might be called social darwinism.
Still, a lot of people require moral regulation and need certainty that there is ‘life’ after death, and so religion persists in many quarters and societies. I don’t have a problem with that except amongst those who ought to be considered educated intellects and ‘should’ have examined this question more closely and come to more enlightened humanist than conventional religious answers.
For my part I am a biological materialist and believe that life on this planet (and on any number of other similar planets in the universe) is an accident, the inevitable consequence of chemistry under the right environmental conditions. I believe that the human brain is a highly evolved organ that has an acute sense of predicting outcomes from incoming data and learned things, to solve problems and respond to events with appropriate actions; this faculty has allowed humans to come to dominate life on Earth. And in the process the brain has created the illusion of self. There is no separate ‘mind’, there is no consciousness, there is no soul, comforting as that may be.
But I am not an atheist. I think atheism is as intellectually barren as theism. I am agnostic. The questions of the existence of god is unknowable. But that doesn’t/shouldn’t stop the curious mind from seeking answers. As a consequence, I am a spiritual agnostic.
What about spiritualism?
I think spiritualism is a high order intellectual and emotional and even physical endeavour and should be valued and pursued for its own sake. To appreciate the beauty of the artistic and architectural artifacts and monuments of our forebears in the name of religion is to feel the awe of their endeavours and achievements. To constantly challenge ourselves to achieve greater understanding of this universe itself, even though we may never know the whole story, is part of our potential and must be pursued. I prefer knowledge over faith and truth over belief. I am agnostic about the existence of a higher being, but I am not an atheist as this is as untenable as to be a theist.
Ultimately though, thinking people are searching for meaning in their lives, to have some sense of ‘purpose’. Cynically, perhaps, as a biological materialist, our purpose is simple – to reproduce; to continue the species by passing on our genes to the next generation. But because we have brains (minds) that can create the illusion of ‘self’, and also manufacture the ‘reason’ for our existence, we may as well feed the illusion and create our own purpose. Our purpose is not to serve an unknowable god, but to live our lives with ‘purpose’, virtuously, based on constructive values and ethics. So, your purpose, and mine, is to be the best version of oneself you can be, to know and use your best talents so as to experience some joy and happiness in this life, which is the only life there is.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada
© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢.