Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life, The Universe, and Spirituality

Like many people, I tend to mentally divide my life into periods. There are different classifications involving mental, social and physical phases, with some overlap. One such classification, something that I never really had a name for before, but for the purpose of this post I will call it my view of the big picture. It has gone through a couple of different stages. What I mean by my view of the big picture is a combination of my views on the Universe in terms of the materialistic, rationalistic and spiritual. It also includes how I think about what the rest of humanity, both historically and currently, has to say about these things.

Definitions are important here, so for the purposes of this post, when I use the term “spiritual,” I am referring to beliefs and feelings indicating that there are forces in operation within the Universe that are beyond the realm of the scientific method and that these forces exhibit a tangible and noticeable effect upon our everyday lives and/or our fate after we are deceased. I know that there are much more expansive definitions of this word. In fact, I often use these more expansive definitions myself, but for clarity I will stick to this limited definition here.

What I would call the first step in my path to my current view of the big picture was reached more or less as follows: I grew up in a household that espoused the Catholic religion. Furthermore, many of our friends were members of various Christian denominations or were Jews, who espoused a belief in God in various intensities. In addition, a significant percentage of adults around me expressed a belief in other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, premonitions of the future, etc.  Most of these adults did not generally attempt to justify their belief systems through reasoned discourse. Instead, they were generally uncomfortable by the act of questioning. I was exposed to some dissenters, however. There were several adults who questioned the existence of God as well as of supernatural phenomena.

Very early on, I began to gravitate towards the skeptics, and I began to read books and watch television programs that advocated scientific and analytical thinking. I began to question religion as a spiritual basis underlying the Universe and eventually settled into what I would call strong agnosticism trending towards atheism. As time went by, I moved closer to an atheistic worldview. This is what I like to think about as my first major step in formulating my view of the big picture.

Like many people I know, I settled into what I would call a rationalistic and scientific thought system. This was not the cold and mechanistic viewpoint that Western popular culture all too often painted as caricatures. Instead, I was, and still am, bursting with awe at the wonders of the Universe and strive to find my place in it. Furthermore, I always held to the firm conviction that the things that make life worth living were human values such as kindness, love, morality, dignity, etc. and that human beings needed to be valued.

However, like many adherents of similar worldviews, I held, if not with contempt, a lack of respect and a wariness for views of reality that tended towards the spiritual and that relied heavily on faith. Occasionally, I was even downright hostile.  Unfortunately, for myself and for others with similar mindsets, this led to a kind of “us verses them” mentality. I, of course, identified with the rationalists. “Them” were the folks who were more spiritually inclined.

My view of human history was common with non-believers.  It was the story of rational people being mercilessly persecuted by religious fanatics. I saw religion and spirituality constantly at war with the truth and those who sought it.  Throughout history, skeptics were persecuted, murdered and tortured by religious people. Religious texts were, at best, benign fairy tales and, at worst, guideposts to a horrendous morality.

Then, there came the second big intellectual step for me. No, I did not convert; nor did I surrender my firm beliefs. Instead, I realized that the world was not such a simple place after all. The state of things is not so black and white.

My moving into this next level did not displace my core beliefs, though it did eliminate some of their sharp edges. I am still a rationalist, and I do not believe that any kind of spirituality can describe any of the hard facts underlying the Universe. Nor do I believe that a balance between science and spirituality can tell us anything about the nature of reality. I do, however, despite my disagreement with a good portion of the various worldviews, know that I can learn a lot when interacting with people who have a more spiritual outlook than myself. Of course, examining our history and culture in terms of religion and spirituality is also a valuable endeavor.

 One of main things that led to my changed outlook was my realization of just how complex the world is. An illustration of such complexity as it relates to this topic is best drawn by a series of examples. Below are more or less random thoughts that I believe will illustrate my point.

For instance, though I find that some of the moral systems espoused in some revered religious texts to be reprehensible, other moral teachings have represented in vital ways posts and cornerstones of human ethics. Though I find some of what is advocated in the Old Testament and in the Koran abominable, to their credit, modern believers almost universally, consciously or unconsciously, reject such immorality. Personally, I know folks whose faith has helped spur them into very noble acts. While religion has often repressed science and rationality, during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church was instrumental in preserving knowledge and culture.

Friedrich Nietzsche, with some justification, grouped Christianity and other religions in with liberal democracy as well as as with the human tendencies for pity and the desire for equality. The famous philosopher and some thinkers who came after him were contemptuous of these beliefs and rejected them, labeling them as a “slave morality.” I find myself siding with the adherents of religion on this one.

 My fellow secularists are very quick to point out how war, murder, rape, torture, etc. have been perpetuated in the name of religion throughout history. They have, but we often forget that at other times, particularly during the French Revolution and under Communist regimes, folks who claimed to be adherents of a rational worldview carried on all sorts of oppression with just as much ferocity and barbarity as the religious fanatics. I still believe that, generally, the path to a better world leads down the path of secular humanism, but as the above illustrates, it is not so simple.

 While such folks seemed to be sparse during my childhood and adolescence, the world is full of believers of various faiths or thought systems who think a lot about their beliefs and who argue for them using logic and reason. Some of these people are a lot smarter than I am. In addition, there are also many out-of-the-box thinkers out there that do not easily fall into any one category or another in regards to these beliefs.

 Of course, as a person who prides himself on being open minded, I must also leave the door open to the possibility that I may be wrong about a lot this. When I look at people with contrary views, I see a lot of compelling arguments being made by very bright people.

 So exactly what is my modified view of the big picture? I believe that the reality of the Universe, as well as our lives, can only be explained by using scientific methods. I strongly doubt the existence of God, but I acknowledge the possibility.  However, while it has spurred plenty of horrific acts, religion and spirituality have at other times done plenty of good. Adherents of reason and rationality, while having a net positive effect on humanity, have also done terrible things. People of faith and believers in spiritualism, just like non-believers, represent the spectrum of intellect that ranges from the unthinking to the brilliant.

Human history, culture and our systems of thought are rich and vast. Engaging in too much overt hostility and being closed-minded about such a great part of this aspect of the world and humanity is not the path to personal enrichment. I am in no way advocating that anyone give up his or her personal beliefs, convictions or morals. I am advocating that people learn and strive to interact with the portions of the world and culture that we fundamentally disagree with.

The above represents personal observations. Many of my readers have very different beliefs and may thus conclude that I have reached the wrong conclusions. However, I hope, at the very least, to impart the sense that the world is a complicated place. Those who stand on opposite sides of the fence have a lot to learn from one another. Generalized opinions of religious, agnostic or atheist folks, as well as the histories and cultures that accompany such beliefs, are often too simplistic. While our core beliefs are important to us, they need not stop us from understanding the nuance and complexity inherent in the world. By looking at other worldviews from time to time, we can all be exposed to a more comprehensive view of the Universe in which we inhabit.

Dedicated to my sister Olivia, one of the skeptical bright lights of my childhood.


Caroline said...

Fascinating post, Brian. I really enjoedy reading it.
I think I differenciate more between religion and spirituality than you do. I'm an anti-clerical at heart but would consider myself to be very spiritual. I always thought that spirituality and religion don't go together well. Sill, I'd call myself an atheist. I don't believe in a God - especially not an old bearded man. I can even rather accept more than one God - as metaphors for phenomena.
It's an interesting topic, for sure.

Suko said...

Very interesting and well-written post, Brian Joseph. Thank you for sharing your beliefs. If I may (over)simplify, it sounds as if you are skeptical and open-minded. It should be noted that people were/are persecuted because of their religious beliefs, not just skeptics. Science may be able to explain a lot, but the question of Life, why we are here, still looms large.

HKatz said...

"My moving into this next level did not displace my core beliefs, though it did eliminate some of their sharp edges."

Thank you for articulating this as well as you do.

I'm wary of ideologues. These can be ideologues of a religion involving a deity, or ideologues of other sorts. People who are devoted adherents to an ideology are generally the ones most willing to see destruction or blood shed for what they think is the greatest good. They won't typically stop to think if the greater good is good. They tend to also be the most closed-off and unwilling to even consider another point of view.

Sometimes on the Internet I see "debates" (more like shouting matches) between ideologues of the Christian sort and the atheist sort. And they cherry pick quotes from an English translation of the Bible and fling those quotes at each other. They get nowhere - for one reason, because you can't understand the Bible like that (even if you're approaching it as a purely literary/cultural text, you can't just skim it and pluck out quotes). So there's no meaningful dialogue this way. But they're not interested in it anyway.

Then again, we need to balance openness with some firmness too and have some principles we aren't willing to compromise on. But this takes mental effort - abiding by principles while also reflecting on them and adjusting them as needed in light of new evidence.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Thanks for the good word.

I did restrict my definition of Spirituality rarely narrowly for the purposes of this post.

Some people define it as positive human emotions, a sense of community and personal well being and strength. From that point of view I am spiritual.

I also love delving into the metaphors found in religious beliefs and texts.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

I think that your description of my beliefs is right on the money.

I definitely agree that the mysterious of the Universe are so difficult to wrap ones head around. I tend not to see much reason for supernatural answers.

I also blogged about that here:

Not just have religious people been persecuted but on occasion as I pointed out, it has been skeptics doing the persecuting.

I think that we both agree that the entire religion verses skeptic thing is complicated.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi HKatz - Indeed many followers of ideologies have taken their beliefs to fanatical levels.

The incivility and shouting matches on social media are on controversial issues are out of control.It is getting no one anywhere.I completely agree that these folks are not interested in learning or dialog.

James said...

This is a fascinating overview of your views on the "big picture". I admire your thoughtfulness and willingness to both explore these issues and share your views.
I personally value the exploration of our world in the sense of Aristotle's "desire to know" that he claimed was part of each human's nature. To the extent that exploration leads me to consider views different than my own I find myself enriched by the experience.
Thanks, Brian, for your commentary.
(Brian, the commentary listed under Robbie Nickel was posted in error - she is my sister and I do not know how that happened).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks for the good word.

I am bursting with that Aristotelian desire to know!

So many books, so little time said...

I think its a great post, open, honest and non judgmental. I often find people cannot discuss religion without getting angry, aggressive or just downright rude.

My views have slightly changed over the years, when I was younger it was black and white with no room for discussion. As an adult I have realized and been educated that there is grey areas and not to judge, which admittedly, we often do.

I am amazed by how many religions are out there and how much is done in the name of religion, both good and bad.


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy.

I do actually get judgmental and angry, but only when I see people try to use religion to take away the rights of others or two oppress.

Other then that it is just the exchange of ideas.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. Very interesting and thought provoking blog post.

Can truth be known? Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?"
And Romans 2:15 says that the truth is written on the minds and hearts of all men.

There is a truth and it can be known. Believing in God in the context of the Christian religion is not a matter of choosing or deciding or "this is what works for me".

It either is true or it is not true.

If it's not true then nothing really matters. You live, you die.

If it is true then everything matters because you live, you die and in the words of Hamlet:

"To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub."

The universe is too orderly to be a big accident.

I appreciate your fair and honest approach in your search for truth and I pray that you discover it.

Take care and God bless you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I do appreciate your good thoughts, be they in the form of prayers towards me. Thank you.

As to existence having no meaning if there is no God, I disagree. I think first and foremost existence has meaning through our positive actions and thoughts. Love, empathy, dignity, courage are ways that we humans give existence meaning.

Second I do believe that that humanity becoming aware of the Universe. Learning about existence, and our place in the Universe, shedding light into the darkness is another noble reason for our existence.

Take care.

Maria Behar said...

Brian, this is an extremely interesting post,especially because you've detailed your own views on the subject at hand.

You're right in saying that many people see their lives in stages or periods of development. I think that, for many people who are raised in religious households, the first stage is one of simply accepting and going along with their parents' religious beliefs. The same thing holds true for those raised in agnostic or atheistic environments. However, the time comes when a child begins to question and analyze what s/he has been taught. Obviously, other influences come in through the school environment. Going to college is especially eye-opening!

I, too, have gone through stages in my worldview. Although I do basically hold to Christian doctrines, I have investigated and will continue to investigate other religions and spiritual doctrines. I, too, was raised Catholic, but right now I'm more of a non-denominational Christian. I've also taken a look at New Age literature from time to time. I do try to avoid the more "way-out" stuff, though. But I do consider certain aspects of it, such as meditation and visualization, to be valuable.

I especially like the following part of your post:

"My fellow secularists are very quick to point out how war, murder, rape, torture, etc. have been perpetuated in the name of religion throughout history. They have, but we often forget that at other times, particularly during the French Revolution and under Communist regimes, folks who claimed to be adherents of a rational worldview carried on all sorts of oppression with just as much ferocity and barbarity as the religious fanatics. I still believe that, generally, the path to a better world leads down the path of secular humanism, but as the above illustrates, it is not so simple."

Well stated! The above mirrors my views exactly! It really amuses me at times (and at others, it gets me a bit upset) how people of one religious or political stance just LOVE to demonize "the other side"! Heck, Jesus Himself said the following to the men who were ready to stone the adulterous woman: "Let him who is without sin throw the first stone." And, one by one, they dropped their stones and walked away, embarrassed....

It's just too easy to point fingers at others, while refusing to acknowledge one's own faults or weaknesses. Some religious people constantly attack those who are not, while those of a more skeptic bent do the same to them. Republicans attack Democrats and vice versa. Yet, NO ONE, no matter what their religious or political beliefs are, is infallible or flawless. So I'm very glad that you, unlike other secularists, are more open-minded and objective. Richard Dawkins could learn a thing or two from you! Lol.

Thank you for such an insightful and thought-provoking post!! : )

Lindsay said...

Brian such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post as I said on twitter. It has made me look at my own thoughts on this area and I'm really glad that you tackled this here and tackled it so intelligently. Thank you for a great post.

Violet said...

Your beautifully articulate post shows that you've thought a lot about this. I think we all need to be accepting of the variety of ways of seeing and being in the world, as long as those ways of seeing and being don't harm other people. Sadly, a lot of psychopaths hide behind 'religion' and give it a bad name.

I grew up as an atheist and gravitated to Zen Buddhism. I think that cultivating kindness and compassion is the most important 'spiritual work' we can do. If everyone practiced that, what a wonderful world it would be. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - thanks for such an insightful comment.

As we both know there is a lot of demonization going on out there :) Lately on the secular side it seems that folks as if folks like Bill maher and Richard Dawkins are leading the way.

As I think that you know, I prefer the approach of the late Carl Sagan and now David Witherspoon, who embody an atheism that is willing to talk to dissenting views.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - Thanks for the good word. I really love to think about this sort of stuff. I am often examining my own thoughts.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet. Thanks for the good word.

Indeed I left out the Kindness and compassionate definition of spirituality here for reasons of clarity.

I do agree that is a big part of what it is all about.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

That's an interesting topic. I think the best we can do is to keep an open mind. I have met religious people who took the Bible ad literam - they were the most intolerant when it came to other people's beliefs, while the atheists held a more tolerant view. Like you said, being in awe of the world around you and trying to see the beauty of the world as it is and learning all the time - I feel the same.
No matter what our beliefs are, the real problems appear when we can't accept a different point of view.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - As I alluded to it is difficult for mer to understand how anyone could take the Bible literally. It really contains so many contradictions plus there is some really terrible morality, especially in the old testament.

Though I still think that in general, atheists are tolerant, as of late there have appeared a new brand of militant and angry atheists. Richard Dawkins seems to embody that.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Great post even if it wasn't what I was expecting, according to my blog roll it was something by Susan Brownmiller.

Anyway, fascinating stuff. The manner of spirituality has always intrigued me largely thanks to the man who taught RE at school. A wonderful teacher who encouraged us to learn through debate, it was his lessons that first got me thinking about the differences between those who considered religious and those who viewed themselves as spiritual.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian. Wonderfully articulate and thought provoking post.

You say it perfectly "those who stand on opposite sides of the fence have a lot to learn from one another".
Having grown up in a Catholic household and having gone to Catholic school from kinder through 12th grade, I know first hand how fanatical some can be. It's scary really. Catholic school during the 80's was tough to say the least as during that time teachers and nuns screaming at students and even using rulers for punishment was considered perfectly okay.

As I grew up and started to form my own opinions and questioned what I had been told, I saw that things are not so black and white, not so cut and dry. The parables and stories don't have to be taken so literally. I do believe in God but I now know that He is not there to punish sinners and condemn them to Hell for the slightest misstep.

Well, I hope you are well! I've missed your blog. I'm back to blogging again, but taking it easier than I was before.
Enjoy your weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I inadvertently hit publish on a rough draft of an upcoming post. I think that some of the automated readers sent it out. That post will likely be next.

I did lump in spirituality in with religion for this post. I know that a lot of people who consider themselves spiritual do not consider themselves religious. This is one of the many angles that does make, as you allude to, this topic so very interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I am so glad that you are back to blogging. I will be heading over to your site shortly. I have really missed your commentary also.

Like yourself many people who believe in God seem to be finding their own personal set of beliefs through thinking and reason. It is indeed so very interesting.

@parridhlantern said...

As per the other comments this is a wonderful post. I've always described myself as logically an agnostic but emotionally an atheist, but that's merely a glib response , that doesn't cover the curiosity & questing that trying to understand the world & my place in it. My shorthand answer is a way of stating that I don't know, arguments for all sides exist & can be compelling.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - Thanks for the good word.

I like your description of your agnosticism and your atheism. When I think about it I am not all that far off from that myself.

So many books, so little time said...

I think it is great how many people have gotten involved and put forth their views on this. Again, great post Brian.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - This post has indeed garnered a lot of responses. It is a topic that interests many.

Thanks again.