Birth, and conception itself are miraculous, even if you don’t believe in miracles. Awesome on three counts: that males and females exist in the first place, are sexually attracted so irresistibly, and can produce new life. And when that new life is ready, the very process of birth is wondrous in itself. With less impactful events, we can get so used to the world around us, so desensitized, that we lose appreciation for the commonplace facets of our existence, the dandelions in the lawn. We need to step back, and ask: “What if X, Y, or Z never was, but suddenly became, manifesting itself in reality for the first time?” We thereby access awe and wonder, and a connection with the beauty of nature, even for the mundane. Awe comes easier with the biggies like birth, gazing into the depths of the Grand Canyon, or the cascading plunge of Niagara Falls just downstream from my childhood home. When we contemplate the intricacies of nature while examining the underside of a leaf or the uniqueness of snowflakes or fingerprints, we connect to the “All.” Existence itself, and the wonders of life, consciousness, and love, and the fact that they even exist in the first place, leaves us awestruck, and on the doorstep of gratitude. When the newborn is your grandson, and he sports all ten toes, you cry buckets of gratitude. Genetic and biologic roulette have smiled upon you, and the frightening hammer has not descended. You feel all the more connected to your daughter and her mate, thankful to be included in this awesome unfolding. And then you hold that tiny, fragile human being, and witness your daughter nursing him contentedly, and experience the connectedness we call love, and the full meaning of the big picture. And there they are, in one experience, three of the most basic spiritual emotions: awe, gratitude, and love.
Whether you are religious or not, awe is spiritual fuel. Spirituality is about connectedness, and consciousness, particularly the emotions we experience as we contemplate our awareness of the universe and our connectedness with it. We can deliberately access these emotions, or virtues (they can be viewed through either lens) typically associated with spirituality. We can begin with awe, gratitude, humility, and love. These are virtues because they are aspirational, i.e., something we value, but they are emotions as well, and spiritual, because they connect us to our surroundings. Experiencing awe allows us to rise above the boredom associated with our gradual desensitization to our surroundings. Gratitude allows us to move beyond negativity, entitlement, and greed. Humility moves us beyond the narcissistic confines of pride. And love conquers alienation and anger.
Awe is perhaps the most basic spiritual emotion. It moves us beyond egotism, beyond the narrow confines of the self, as we experience the vastness and complexity of the universe. It invites humility, as we acknowledge our small place amidst the vastness of the “All.” And we experience wonder, over the complicated mechanics of the universe. As we age, and circle the drain of death, we see ourselves recreated in our offspring, and in their offspring, and marvel at the cycle of life. Unless we manufacture fantasies of immortality (with a side dish of bliss), we are limited to mortality with a consolation prize: genetic quasi-immortality via the generations that follow us. Life goes on, without and beyond us, but we have a role in fathering and furthering life.
Reproduction maintains life. Animals and plants are markedly different from inorganic matter: Life involves growth, change, and functional activities. And unlike the average rock, living things reproduce. Reproduction is the start of life, the regeneration of life, without which, species, and life itself, would cease. We can also stand in awe before the myriad variations of reproduction. I don’t know about you, but as a teenager, I never got a “Birds and Bees” talk, and as an oldest child, I had to figure it out on my own, with a censored library, no internet, and the limited help of my fellow uninformed friends. Girls changed, hormones got louder, new rules emerged, and the world turned upside down for a few years. Eventually it made sense, and I adapted. Becoming a professional psychologist, and an amateur philosopher, helped me put it in perspective, but that was much later. Early on, we studied reproduction in school, but it was a task, an academic chore, without the awe it holds when I revisit it now. But perhaps it’s worth a second peek, especially after the appearance of Teddy, Luke, and Marsden (you can call him Mars) in my life.
The sheer variation in reproductive strategies amongst plants and animals is astounding, even before we add the question of how these life-renewal techniques arose in the first place. To begin with, we have sexual versus asexual reproduction. The sexual version combines genetic material from two parents, whereas in asexual reproduction, a single organism produces a nearly exact copy of itself, without any genetic input/fertilization from another. Asexual reproduction has some clear advantages: it can be accomplished without a partner, and can be quite rapid, allowing a species to multiply quickly in a given environment. But sexual reproduction has an evolutionary advantage. It blends genetic material from two parents, producing unique individuals, and a genetically diversified species. This diversity provides more strategies for a species to adapt to a challenging environment, more possibilities for natural selection.
Sexual reproduction can involve either internal or external fertilization. Internal fertilization, usually via some type of sexual intercourse, results in a zygote being formed inside the female, where it is carried until a live birth in mammals, though birds and some lizards lay the fertilized egg and incubate it until it hatches. External fertilization is typical in species that live in the water, and amongst many plants. The female lays the eggs in the water, which keeps them from drying out, and the male sprays sperm over the eggs, though the resulting zygotes must fend for themselves without parental protection.
Many groups of animals, primarily invertebrates, do not have separate sexes, but nonetheless engage in sexual reproduction, in which either partner can act as a male or as a female. A hermaphrodite has both male and female sexual organs, and can thereby produce either male or female gametes to unite with complementary gametes to form a zygote. Many earthworms, slugs and snails, and most plants are hermaphroditic. Take a moment, and imagine how this would alter the human social scene! Simultaneous hermaphrodites have fully functional male as well as female genitalia, while sequential hermaphrodites are born as one sex, but can change into the opposite sex, without enrolling at a transsexual clinic. Clownfish, those colorful white-banded orange fish of cartoon fame, live in symbiosis with sea anemones. Typically, a given anemone contains a “harem” involving a large female, as well as smaller reproducing and non-reproducing males. If the female dies or departs the harem, one of the largest males will move up the hierarchy and become a female, and another male will fertilize her. Simultaneous hermaphrodites, such as banana slugs, can hook up, fertilize each other, and each lay fertilized eggs, but in the absence of a partner, they can resort to asexual reproduction, and self-fertilize. What a trump card if you are painfully shy, or find relationships unsafe!
In plants, sexual and asexual reproduction can occur, and hermaphrodism is common. The reproductive organs can be present on separate male and female plants (dioecious plants such as the kiwi or holly), or a single plant can have both male and female parts (monoecious). In the latter, the male and female structures can be located on separate flowers (e.g., pumpkins), or each individual flower can be hermaphroditic (e.g., tomatoes and hibiscus). Hermaphroditic plants bloom flowers containing both male, pollen-producing structures (stamens and anthers) and female parts (the pistil, with its stigma, style, and ovary). These plants can self-pollinate (though this reduces genetic diversity), or cross-pollinate, in each case producing a seed that recreates life. But cross-pollination requires a vector, such as the wind, or a pollinator. To increase genetic diversity, plants have evolved impressive sexual strategies to attract pollinators to spread pollen between species members, including variations in flower shape, color, and fragrance. In a win-win relationship, pollinators such as bees obtain nutritious nectar and pollen in the bargain. As a young teenager, who knew that sex and reproduction could be so varied and complicated? But then again, bees and colorful flowers create an apt analogy for teenage dating.
But the best is often saved for last. My favorite reproduction story, and the one that captivates most children, is the butterfly and caterpillar cycle. Butterflies display “metamorphosis,” a massive transformation of self, involving distinct, separate stages. In the first stage, butterflies lay fertilized eggs, usually on the leaves of plants. When the tiny caterpillar hatches from the egg, it is a voracious eater, gobbling up the leaves. Its exoskeleton (skin) cannot stretch, so the caterpillar must molt, developing new skin several times as it grows. At full size, the caterpillar creates a pupa, or chrysalis around itself. Its body undergoes remarkable changes, a metamorphosis into a butterfly. It eventually emerges from the chrysalis, with wet, soft, folded wings, exhausted, but after a few hours of rest, it learns to fly. It then learns to find food (feeding on and pollinating flowers along the way) and a mate (for sexual intercourse), and lays its fertilized eggs, completing the life cycle that fascinates us all.
So there it is, the 8th grade essay I should have been assigned. Hopefully there aren’t too many biology or botany majors in the crowd to rip up the details. But regardless, the issue is family connectedness, and the spiritual awe, gratitude, and love we experience when we add a new family member and grow the future. Welcome to Mars.
Marsden Patrick - May 15, 2019“One Hour” - 2019
For more thoughts on spirituality, psychology, anthropocentrism, and even photography go to Amazon.com to obtain the print or e-Book version of Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices. Chapter Highlights of the book are found on the Beyond Atheism page of this website
Coming for Summer Solstice - June 21, 2019Psychomechanics: Tools for Self-Regulation of Emotionsby Edward Chandler, Ph.D. A freestanding self-help book.
My readers can obtain a free e-copy of
Psychomechanics – Tools for Self-Regulation of Emotions
during the first three days of its appearance on Amazon. A print version of Psychomechanics also will be sold on Amazon for $12.95.
The year was 1600. Both religion and astronomy were in a state of revolution, and in conflict with each other to boot. On October 31, 1517, the Protestant Reformation began. Martin Luther, angry that Pope Leo X was financing the building of St. Peter’s Basilica via another round of pay-for-salvation indulgences, nailed his 95 Theses to the chapel door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. With the aid of the printing press, which Johannes Gutenberg had made commercially successful in the 1450s, Luther’s protest was widely disseminated. 300 years before the Internet revolutionized our communication of information, Gutenberg had a similar impact. Scientific views, literature, the Bible, and yes, heresy, were now readily available. The exchange of ideas multiplied exponentially. Luther was excommunicated a year later by the Catholic Church after refusing to recant, and convicted as a heretic by the Edict of Worms in 1521. The Reformation quickly expanded into new threats, spread by figures such as John Calvin in Geneva, and King Henry VII in England. The Catholic Church responded, as its own reform movement morphed into the Counter-Reformation. In 1540, Ignatius Loyola officially formed the Jesuits, who were intent on propagating and defending the Catholic faith, and reconverting Protestants. The Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, issued decrees to establish rules of church life and clarify doctrine, to counteract corruption and heresy. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic list of forbidden books, was launched in 1559, banning and prohibiting the reading of over 500 heretical texts. And following the model of the Spanish Inquisition established in 1478, the Roman Inquisition was formed, to investigate and prosecute all forms of heresy and dissent. Relentless interrogation and torture were employed by local Inquisitors to compel confessions.
During these years, science had its own trajectory, and its own clashes with the religious order. Fearful of Catholic retaliation for his radical notion that the sun, not the earth, is the stationary center of the universe, Nicolaus Copernicus delayed his publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium until shortly before his death in 1543. In 1564, Galileo Galelei was born in Pisa, Italy (two months before William Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford-upon-Avon). Between the death of Copernicus and the birth of Galileo, Filippo Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola, Italy. Fifty-two years later, at the turn of the century, he was gagged and burned at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. Why?
For starters, Bruno had repeatedly run afoul of religious authorities. In 1565, he joined the Dominican order in Naples, and took on the name, Giordano, later being ordained as a priest in 1572. He fled to Rome in 1576 to evade a trial for heresy, after openly discussing the Arian heresy questioning the divinity of Christ. He abandoned the Dominican order, moved to Geneva in 1578, and embraced Calvinism. But after publishing 20 errors his Calvinist professor had supposedly made in a single lecture, he was again in hot water, eventually being arrested, excommunicated, “rehabilitated,” and allowed to leave. He later became a royal lecturer under the protection of the French king, published books on mnemonics, and moved to London in 1583, where he lectured on Copernican theory at Oxford, insisting on the reality of the Earth’s movement in space. He began writing his six dialogues (in which his characters argue their philosophical positions), where he reaffirmed the Copernican view that the Earth circles the sun. But he went much further. He argued that the universe is infinite, composed of “innumerable worlds” similar to our own solar system, and that our sun is not the center of the universe. This view was in stark contrast to the Copernican view that the universe is finite, with the sun at its center, while other stars are located on a fixed sphere just beyond our solar system.
After frequent debates and many conflicts during his subsequent years in various European cities, Bruno returned to Italy to educate an aristocrat in mnemonics. But his pupil betrayed him, reporting him to the Roman Inquisition, where he was arrested in 1592, and interrogated for seven years (not months) regarding all aspects of his philosophical and religious views. The verdict of the Inquisition was finally delivered in 1600, when he was sentenced to death, after being branded an “impentinent and pertinacious heretic” by Pope Clement VIII. His books were to be “publicly destroyed and burned in the square of St. Peter,” and placed in the Index of Forbidden Books. Defiant to the end, Bruno reportedly responded to his death sentence by exclaiming, "Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it." Soon after, he was taken naked to the Campo de’ Fiori, where his tongue was bound in a gag, and he was burned alive.
Bruno was subsequently celebrated as a martyr of science, though debates ensued regarding the true reason for his death sentence. He was not condemned for believing in Copernicus, but his claim, that Earth moves, was censored as heresy by Inquisitors in 1597. His belief in many worlds was also heretical. Christian scholars claim that Bruno was convicted for his religious views, not his cosmology, but can the two be unlinked? There is an underlying issue here, involving the anthropocentric underpinnings of religion. I have previously argued that death anxiety and anthropocentrism are the primary motives for religious belief, accompanied by a handful of other motives. Humans want to escape the limits of our mortality, and we want to see ourselves as the central purpose of the universe. Eternal heavenly bliss, provided by a God who places mankind at the center of creation, abundantly meets both needs. We pose with false humility at the foot of a God, who we invented to establish our centrality in the universe, as well as our own immortality. We make Him invisible, and demand faith. But then those pesky intellectuals ask questions, and are eventually supported by scientists who provide facts that undermine faith in the Holy Bible.
Giordano Bruno did not yet have the benefits of Galileo’s or Hubble’s telescopes, and his objections to religious cosmology were more philosophical than scientific (based on evidence). But the problem is that his cosmology, and that of Galileo, Kepler, and their successors, undermines the anthropocentric underbelly of religion. If mankind is at the center of the universe, or just next to the God that we created at the center, it would be convenient if the Earth was the physical center of the universe. When Copernicus put our sun at the center of the universe, it required a small accommodation. But if the universe is infinite, and there is no center, we lose our significance, particularly if those other solar systems are inhabited (as Bruno suggested they may be). The only thing worse would be if we evolved from ancestors and were not even present at the dawn of creation. In positing an evolutionary link between man and “lower” animals, Darwin effectively bridged the chasm of dissimilarity that had previously separated man from other life forms. Man was now a mere animal. Astronomy and evolutionary theory challenge our narcissism as a species, removing us as a centerpiece in the grand scheme of things. This is Bruno’s real sin, his narcissistic blow to mankind, striking a crack in the anthropocentric mirror that religion creates and protects. Aside from inviting greed for immortality, this is religion’s primary sin, pride, creating the God mirror, that fun-house distortion that allows us to bask in the reflection of God’s glory at the center of the universe, as His favorite pet. Bruno’s cosmology invited us to adopt the intolerable virtue of humility. For this he had to be gagged, in death as in life.
For more on anthropocentrism, motives for religious belief, and secular alternatives, check out, Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available in print and eBook from Ed Chandler on Amazon. And if you are in Rome, go to Bruno’s statue, erected in 1889 on the very spot where he had been burned at the stake.
Humans are among the most vulnerable creatures on Earth at birth. We are totally helpless, dependent on a nurturing mother for survival. Our emotional vulnerability and dependency continue for well over a decade, and to a lesser extent, throughout our lives. Attachment is crucial to the welfare of mammals, and although it dances with the complementary skill, autonomy, throughout the lifespan, our emotional welfare plummets without healthy attachments. If we are lucky, we are blessed with loving, nurturing parents and grandparents, and become healthy enough to attract a healthy lifelong romantic partner. If not, we struggle.
Even if we do have parental, marital, and social connections to nurture us, we sometimes experience losses and insecurities that leave us feeling raw and needy. If we have developed religious faith, we have an ever-present divine source of nurturance available to soothe us in times of need. God, however we conceive of Him or Her, is a higher power whom we can turn to for love, wisdom and guidance at whatever hour, 24/7. All we need to do is maintain a close relationship, via frequent prayer, and proactive moral initiative, to have ready access to this incredible resource. But some of us are troubled by faith. We seek evidence before believing, and find it lacking. As a result, our ability to access God’s gifts is compromised. What are we to do?
Secular spirituality, otherwise known as spiritual atheism, is a sometimes poorly understood nonreligious approach to spirituality. Concisely articulated, it can be viewed as a celebration of consciousness and connectedness. It focuses on the spiritual emotions of awe, gratitude, humility, love, and existential joy. We count our blessings for the gifts of life, consciousness, love, and an awesome universe to unfold our life within. We connect with lovers, friends, and the “All,” without the need to connect with unproven spirits, or the belief in disembodied consciousness (spirits such as gods, ghosts, and souls).
Our mental health, and spiritual connectedness, both require solid attachments. We must attach both externally and internally. We benefit from nurturing external attachments to our parents, friends, and a healthy lover, and a feeling of connectedness to humanity, nature, and the universe as a whole. But internal attachment is crucial as well. Self-esteem is a fundamental building block for a healthy personality. If we were not nurtured by our parents sufficiently, or experience abuse or frequent rejection elsewhere, our downloading of this external negativity may leave us feeling adrift, disliking and disconnected from our self. Our religious friends, facing similar circumstances, can pray, and bathe in God’s love (unless they conclude that even God doesn’t love them). We must find an alternative route: self-nurturance.
We can acknowledge that prayer works for our religious brethren, but question its supposedly theological mechanism, and suggest an alternative psychological explanation of its effectiveness. From a secular angle, prayer can be viewed as an export/import business, where the raw materials of self-love and internal wisdom are exported to the supernatural factory, where they are dressed up in infallible divine garb, and then re-imported with confidence. This is a divine end run around self-doubt, and a means of substituting an illusory external connection for a deficient internal connection. From this viewpoint, prayer is a confidence booster that provides an unwitting, indirect access to distrusted internal wisdom and untapped self-nurturance, cleverly disguised as infallible divine guidance and love. From this secular perspective, we have all that we need within us to soothe ourselves when distressed, or to access our intuitive and rational wisdom when facing difficult decisions or dilemmas. The question is how to access these internal resources, or, stated differently, how to harness the power of prayer internally. Allow me to digress for a paragraph or two in the service of this question.
If you haven’t been sufficiently loved and nurtured by others, it is difficult to do so for yourself. It is hard for us to nurture people we dislike, and hard to internally self-nurture if we dislike our self. The task is to develop self-compassion. Notice that when we dislike someone’s behavior, we tend to become more tolerant when we discover their early injuries, and understand how their damage produced their objectionable behavior. We all produce objectionable behavior of our own, all the more so if our childhood injuries have been intense. If we can muster compassion for the injured child within us, we can become more understanding and nurturing to our self, and improve our internal attachment.
But we are all motivated to reduce internal pain, and therefore we tend to suppress those negative emotions, and the memories that drive them. It is not unusual to hear victims of childhood trauma tell me that they have little recall of events before their teens, and they sometimes do so in a monotone voice, having suppressed their memories and numbed their feelings from being abused and traumatized. Other times, their emotions are out of control, when unresolved issues get triggered and suppressed emotions surge up and flood consciousness. The need for self-soothing is obvious, but the ability to do so is compromised, especially if they have self-protectively cut themselves off from the trauma victim, their childhood self. Short-term benefits (e.g., numbing negative emotions via suppression) are often followed by long-term deficits (e.g., being disconnected from the part of yourself that most needs healing). This is where trauma survivors need courage, to face the feelings and memories associated from their trauma, and to re-own and love the child-self within. Those of us who have suffered only garden-variety trauma, without any major abuse, are more fortunate, but still may need to learn self-nurturance if we harbor low self-esteem or practice negative self-talk.
The inner-child route to self-healing is an ego-state approach that attends to three ego states or subpersonalities, and improves the interaction between them. We all like to feel that we are unified, though we all have different sides or parts of self. The inner child ego state contains our true feelings, needs, and desires, our childlike spontaneity and playfulness, and our childhood memories and injuries. Our codependent self includes our defenses against these injuries and vulnerabilities, and our recognition that others have feelings and needs as well. The higher parent is the internal equivalent of a higher power, containing wisdom, love, and understanding. The higher parent guides a healthy balance between the self-centered inner child and the other-centered codependent self, to avoid the extremes of narcissism or codependent negation of the self. The higher parent understands and nurtures the wounds of the child self, appreciates the efforts of the codependent self to deal with those wounds, but seeks healing strategies that are less defensive and less self-defeating.
Regardless of whether you are doing full-scale child within work in a therapeutic setting, this approach can be used for self-nurturance. The trick is to be aware of your ego-states, and to access your higher parent in times of distress, allowing this part of yourself to soothe your vulnerable feelings (child self), substituting this self-nurturance for any defensive acting out, compulsive behavior, or self-attack. But some of us are far better at nurturing others than our self. If so, the trick is to respond to our self as if we are someone else, someone we care about deeply. Maybe you are a parent, or can at least imagine yourself as a parent. Think about or imagine yourself at your best as a parent, very much on top of your game, exuding love and wisdom as you respond to your child’s distress. Now you are in your higher-parent ego state. Imagine now that your own child self is your actual child, that you have been separated from him or her years, and you are coming back to soothe wounds suffered in your absence. Feel the compassion you exude as you hold and soothe your child. Yes, he or she may have made mistakes while responding to distressing events, but you will guide him/her toward better choices, and toward self-acceptance, because we all make errors when reacting to abuse, rejection, and novel circumstances. You forgive him/her, and encourage self-forgiveness, while developing better skills for the future. If you can do this for your child, at least when you are at your best as a parent, then you can do so for yourself (even if you have to first pretend that your child self is your own beloved child). Gradually, you will learn how to identify and shift into this higher-parent role when needed, just as your religious friends learn to use prayer to shift into the flow of God’s love.
Thus, we have two ways to access nurturance and wisdom in times of emotional vulnerability and distress, religious and parental. In the absence of religious faith, we can use the parental route. After all, a higher power is simply a projection of the higher parent in the first place. Our own experience of parental love, or, our ability to soothe our own child, is the core skill to be accessed when we need self-soothing. If our religious brethren can take a different route, more power to them. We all have to get there, one way or the other.
Our departure point is the notion that spirituality is a celebration of consciousness and connectedness. Previous blogs have targeted important varieties of connectedness (e.g., romantic union and eco-spirituality), but here we’ll focus on the other honored guest of the celebration. What is consciousness? We all know, experientially, but describing it takes some thought. Perhaps the closest synonym is awareness. Awareness. What an amazing gift! We get so used to it that we often fail to appreciate it. Gratitude is one of the core emotions we want to practice if we are cultivating a spiritual life, along with awe, humility, and the connecting emotions such as compassion and love. When we take the time to count our blessings, for life, love, and consciousness of it all, we feel fortunate, and experience existential joy – joy regarding our existence.
Backing up a bit, what are the most basic elements of the universe? Before you flash a chart of the Periodic Table, I would reply that yes, matter itself, and its sidekick, energy, are the primary physical phenomena of the universe. But they are accompanied by a radically different entity: consciousness, which is far less tangible, but just as real. On a material level, consciousness is a product of the brain, but cannot be entirely explained by matter. Matter can exist without consciousness (e.g., a rock), but so far, we have no solid, empirical evidence that consciousness can exist independently of matter (in disembodied spirits, such as souls, ghosts, and gods). Consciousness is the primary property of a parallel entity: the mind. The content and processes of the brain are tangible, and include neurons, lobes, and ventricles, as well as chemical, electrical and circulatory processes. The processes of the mind are every bit as fascinating. The basic elements of the mind include sensations, perceptions, thoughts, memories, feelings, fantasies and dreams, identity (which requires self-consciousness), etc.
We can also speak of types of consciousness. Conscious awareness is subjective, involving perception rather than reality or truth. Consciousness is seated in the mind of the individual, and is thereby subjective from the start. We may blindly assume, or arrogantly claim, that our perception of reality accurately reads objective reality, but this is folly. Sensations are organized into perceptions, which are influenced by our own expectations, desires, and experience. Moreover, whatever objective reality is, our brains automatically and unconsciously function as data reduction systems designed to filter out all but the most practical and meaningful information. There are large individual differences in such meaning. Imagine walking through a food court in a shopping mall, and the differences in the perceptions of an architect, a gourmet chef, a starved child, a pedophile, the overworked janitor, and someone who has not visited a bathroom for eight hours.
Besides the difference between what is actually out there and how we perceive it, there are other dichotomies and dimensions of consciousness worthy of analysis. Consciousness can be personal and private, or shared with others. How lonely would we be if we had consciousness but were unable to share it? Beyond the gifts of life and consciousness, we have a capacity for connected consciousness and love, incredible gifts in themselves. Think of your state of mind, your shared values, and your feeling of shared consciousness with your brethren during a Christmas Eve mass, among a stadium full of sport fans as your team takes the lead late in a playoff game, or at a political rally amidst a group protesting a gross injustice. In a darker vein, the so-called “mob mentality” involves a loss of individual identity and responsibility, which can contribute to immoral behavior in an unrestrained group atmosphere ruled by collective consciousness.
Then we have external and internal targets of consciousness. Our capacity for awareness can be focused externally, toward aspects of our surroundings, or internally, i.e., via self-consciousness. Our survival has depended on our ability to focus externally on aspects of the environment that pose possible danger, or offer potential satisfaction of our basic internal needs. But humans, and some other animals to varying degrees, have a capacity for internal, or self-consciousness as well. Like extroverts, we all sometimes experience life focused entirely on the world around us, without self-reflection. Other times, we act as introverts, aware of our mental states at a given moment, as we observe and reflect on our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. We introspect, and in some cases, we are aware that we are aware, and are thus fully self-conscious, not just experiencing our self, but experiencing our experience of our self, for better or worse. Sometimes it feels better to just flow spontaneously, or mindlessly if you will. Other times it pays to be mindful and self-aware, because it facilitates change, and allows us to enter a more spiritual dimension, aware of consciousness, our self, and our connections beyond our self. When we are aware of our awareness of the “All,” we are on the doorstep of awe, existential gratitude, and other spiritual emotions.
Consciousness can also be unitary, or divided in various ways. The left and right hemispheres of the brain can be seen as parallel processors, each taking in data and processing it in a unique, often complimentary manner. Also on this physiological level, the inner core/limbic system of our brains processes information and produces reactions that are more primitive, emotional, reptilian, and compelling than those produced in the more rational arena of our outer layer of cerebral cortex. Another important variable of consciousness involves our degree of awareness or knowing, on a conscious to unconscious dimension. We can distinguish between unconscious processes and unconscious content. We protect ourselves by banishing threatening content from consciousness. We benefit from defenses such as repression, suppression, denial, and dissociation, which export disowned thoughts, feelings, and memories into the unconscious mind. Some memories and realities are too toxic, and threaten to emotionally crush us if we cannot eliminate them from awareness. Other times we have to face them, because the fumes from our accumulating, disowned toxic waste dump can still influence us, outside of our awareness, and stink up our behavior. Unconscious processes include automatically regulated bodily processes such as heartbeat and digestion (which, fortunately, we don’t have to deliberately control from moment to moment). Likewise, automatic psychological processes include expectations and perceptions. It is convenient to expect drivers to stop at perpendicular stop signs, without having to waste time vigilantly monitoring events that are largely predictable. Dreams are also largely unconscious, and can be contrasted with various types of conscious thinking, including daydreaming, intuition, and rational, goal-directed thinking.
We can distinguish between rational and intuitive thinking, and between future-oriented versus present-focused consciousness. The rational mind is the primary mode of operation in language, communication and science, with its emphasis on linear time, cause and effect, and logical, verbal analysis. It feeds the GNP, technology, military superiority (in an attempt to ensure the bottom line of survival), and is future oriented. The intuitive mind is less valued in our clock-driven tech society, though it gives us gut-level (more influenced by emotion and unconscious) perceptions that can be valuable socially and creatively, and should not be ignored when we are about to enter dark alleys or dangerous relationships. In a related vein, we can distinguish logical, goal-oriented thinking from associational thinking. The former gets us from A to B the quickest, and proceeds according to the rules of logic. Associational thinking is a more intuitive mode of consciousness. It is the thought process that characterizes daydreaming, when one thought or image stimulates another, digressing in the moment, with no particular goal or endpoint in mind.
The actual elimination of thinking can also be useful, via meditation, when attempting to relax the mind and body, or to move toward a more present-centered state of consciousness. Goal-oriented thinking allows us to plan for the future, but immersion in the moment is also valuable, and more spiritual: more focused on immediate consciousness. It is actively cultivated by adherents of eastern religions, via mindfulness and other meditation techniques, which start with an elementary focus on breathing (our most basic interaction with our environment). Such present-focused consciousness can move toward mindlessness or mindfulness, i.e., toward suspension of external awareness and immersion in the “void,” or toward full awareness of the “All” of both external and internal reality, and celebration of our gifts.
These modes of consciousness are not better or worse than each other, but are each valuable for different goals. Mental health, like truth, is best viewed as a combination of opposites. It is best to develop multiple skills, and then choose the skill that is most adaptive in the current situation. We all want control of consciousness, particularly our feelings, which are the Holy Grail of consciousness. It helps to fully develop multiple processes of consciousness, and to have a channel selector, an ability to change the process or content of consciousness readily, on the fly. In the absence of such control over consciousness, we may find ourselves more dependent on the use of chemicals to influence consciousness. Some chemicals relax us, other stimulate us, while others (hallucinogens) are known to be a potential gateway to spirituality (or madness). But if we go to the well too often, we fail to develop natural methods of altering consciousness, and risk the slippery slide into addiction. Using a Buddhist metaphor, we can begin to resemble drunken monkeys, running back and forth from one window of stimulation to another (alcohol, other drugs, or behavioral compulsions such as sex, shopping, work or stimulation itself). In the process, we become human doings rather than human beings, and divorce ourselves from the joy of just being, and celebrating beingness. We can take some direction from eastern wisdom, and learn to alter consciousness more directly, without over reliance on chemicals and compulsive pursuits. Fundamentally, spirituality is a celebration of both consciousness and connectedness, so it behooves us to understand and deliberately steer consciousness, in addition to pursuing various ways of connecting to the universe around us.
To explore additional consciousness-building skills, read Part II “Building Secular Spirituality,” in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, which is available in print and e-Book on Amazon. Part II is divided into three Sections, “Celebrating Consciousness,” “Connecting Inside and Out,” and “Morality Revisited”. Chapter Highlights for Beyond Atheism can be found at edchandlerandbeyond.com.
If you care to, please share your perspective on consciousness in the comments section below.
Why on Earth would you ask such a question, Molly?
Who have you been talking to, Molly?
Johnny says He does.
And who is Johnny?
Just a boy in my class. He says boys have penises, girls don’t, and God is big boy, so He obviously has a penis, a really big one. Does He?
Well, I don’t know Molly. I never asked Him.
Is He a he?
Well, yes Molly. He’s our Heavenly Father.
Mommy, is there a Heavenly Mother?
No Molly, but there’s the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.
What’s a virgin, Mommy?
Do we have to talk about this now, Molly?
Why can’t we, Mommy. Is there something wrong with a virgin?
No, honey. I just didn’t expect to have this discussion with you in 4th grade.
Is it bad to ask questions, Mommy?
No, honey. They say that if you’re old enough to ask, you’re old enough to know. So where do we start? You already know what sex is, right?
I think so. It’s when a boy puts his penis in your vagina. Johnny told me.
It’s your choice what you do with your body, Molly. Boys don’t get to decide that.
But what’s a virgin?
Does Johnny keep his penis in his pants, Molly?
Yes, Mommy. He’s not an idiot. So what’s a virgin?
It’s a girl who hasn’t had sex yet.
Johnny’s oldest sister isn’t a virgin. Johnny says she’s a whore. What’s a whore, Mommy?
It’s a girl who has too much sex, with too many boys, or get’s paid to have sex.
You mean whores have too much sex, and virgins don’t get any?
Something like that. I’ve got to go do the laundry, Molly. Maybe we can talk more later.
I can help! Mommy, do you have to have sex to have a baby?
Yes, Molly. That’s why it’s good to wait until you get married to have sex, so you don’t have babies until you’re ready.
Did you and daddy wait until you were married?
Hold this blue cup, Molly, while I pour the detergent in. Do you see how we pour it until it’s above the first line, and even with the second line?
Yes, Mommy. I like helping you. Was Mary a virgin, Mommy?
The Virgin Mary, Mommy.
Yes, Molly. That’s why they call her the Virgin Mary.
Then how did she get the Baby Jesus in her belly, Mommy?
It was a miracle, Molly.
Who makes miracles, Mommy?
Only God has the power to make miracles, Molly.
With His really big penis?
Molly!! Take these clothes to your room.
Seven years later…
Mom, are you a feminist?
Yes, I guess so, Molly.
You’re not sure?
No, I’m sure. Women need to be strong, and equal to men.
So Mom, Why do feminists believe God is male?
Because the Bible tells us so, Molly.
But Mom, wasn’t the Bible written by men?
Yes, Molly. But God inspired the men, so they knew how to write His word.
How do you know that, Mom?
It’s a matter of faith, Molly. Don’t you remember your Catechism?
Yes, but I’m starting to wonder whether faith is a good reason to believe in anything. Like how did Noah get T-Rex, a brontosaurus, and microscopic species into his Ark?
Only God knows, Molly. We’ll find out when we get to Heaven.
Wouldn’t it be funny, Mom, if we got to Heaven and it turned out that God had a vagina?
But really, Mom. If God is female, it changes everything.
I suppose it would, Molly. And your father would probably be pretty upset!
What if there is no Heaven, and God is like Santa Claus, too good to be true?
That’s not what we’ve been taught, Molly.
Is it okay for me to ask these questions?
Yes, Molly. It’s just that you have many more questions than I did. And I was taught to have faith. Your questions threaten everything I believe in.
Don’t be. This is how you learn, honey. You’ve always had more questions than I’ve had answers. But you’ll figure it out for yourself.
I’m not sure there is a God, Mom. But I’m pretty sure that if there is a God, He doesn’t have a penis. I think men made a lot of stuff up, for their own benefit. Like that story about Eve tempting them. How come men start all the wars, but we’re the evil ones?
Good question, Molly.
Later that night, in dreamland…
Here, here! All rise for the Honorable God the Father!
Be seated. We are assembled for the trial of Mrs. Eve. The charges include blasphemy, and inciting a riot, specifically, a feminist riot. How dost thou plead, Mrs. Eve?
Ms. Eve, if you please.
Are you not married to Adam? How dost thou plead, Mrs. Eve?
I am represented by my attorney, Ms. Molly.
Taking her cue, attorney Molly confirmed, She pleads Not Guilty.
You mean, Not Guilty, Sir!
No, I certainly do not. We intend to question your credentials to even convene this court, and your right to charge my client.
How dare you?! Watch your words, lest you damn yourself to Hell, and your client with you.
You’ve been using that shtick for centuries, Your Impostorship.
You’ll soon sing a different song, my dear, on a much hotter stage. Prosecutor, present your first witness.
Your Holiness, Heavenly Father and Omnipotent Creator, who bequeathed us all with the gifts of life and free will, we maintain that Eve, she who tempted mankind into sin in the first place, has not only challenged biblical truth, but has incited all womankind to rebel against divine patriarchy. We have only one witness, Your Holiness. Mr. Archie Blunder, from Bayonne, New Jersey.
The witness will take the stand.
Mr. Blunder, do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Would you please describe for the court, Mr. Blunder, the events of this past 6th of June on the steps of the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Bayonne.
Yes, it was a beautiful God-given Sunday morning. The missus and I were on our way to the 10 a.m. service, but when we arrived, there was a large group of women on the steps, in rapt attention, listening to a woman in white robes and sandals, preaching with a bullhorn.
Is that woman in this courtroom, Mr. Blunder, and if you see her, would you please point her out?
Let the court reporter note that the witness has pointed to the defendant, Mrs. Eve. Go on Mr. Blunder.
She was blaspheming, right in front of the Blessed Virgin herself, with underage girls in attendance. She was challenging Genesis itself, claiming that she never touched an apple, never tempted Adam with one, and claimed that the apples were rotten anyways, at their core. She insisted that death anxiety is at the core of the human dilemma. She claimed that men invented religious delusions, including a male God to subjugate women, and an afterlife to deny death and promise immortality to the masses.
And did she incite these women and impressionable girls any further, Mr Blunder?
Yes, she did. She challenged them, accused them of trading their equal rights for immortality, of swallowing religious nonsense while damning their sisters to second fiddle. She accused them of being phony feminists, of catering to the Man.
Thank you, Mr. Blunder. Your witness, counselor.
Mr. Blunder. You said your wife was with you?
Yes, she was. She heard the blaspheming heretic as well. In the old days, the witch would’ve been burned at the stake!
Is your wife here with you today?
No she is not.
And why not?
She chose to stay home.
She chose to stay home, or you asked her to stay home? I remind you that you are still under oath, under the scrutiny of your Creator at this very moment.
I asked her to stay home.
She doesn’t need to hear any more of the garbage coming from that bitch’s mouth – I’m sorry – from the heretic.
What could happen if she and the other women fell under the influence of the supposed heretic, Mr. Blunder?
All hell could break loose. Women are already grabbing too much power, rebelling against the biblical mandate. It’s our job to wisely protect women. God says so.
Thank you Mr. Blunder. I have no further questions, Your Impostorship.
Do you have any witnesses of your own to call, Mrs. Molly?
Ms. Molly, if you would.
I would not. And if you have no witnesses to call, we will move toward My Judgment.
I do have one witness, Your Impostorship.
I call God Himself to the stand.
This is preposterous. How dare you?
Are you beyond questioning, Your Evasiveness? Are we to rely solely on faith here? If so, why even convene this court. Why even listen to evidence? What are you afraid of? Do you feel naked now that you’ve relinquished your convenient power of invisibility?
So be it, Mrs. Molly. You’ll serve your eternal sentence for contempt later. In the meantime, earn it.
Thank you, Your Impostorship. Let us begin. Among other accolades, you are known as the Heavenly Father, are you not?
Yes, I am.
So you present yourself to the faithful as a male, do you not?
Yes, I do.
And are you indeed male?
That is a matter of interpretation, but most people prefer to think so.
Do you find that most women prefer to view God as male?
That’s a mixed bag, and it’s changing, but in the beginning, yes, women preferred a divine father to protect them from danger, and to run the show.
So is your gender of your own making? As the First Cause, did you choose to be masculine?
Your Honor, The prosecution objects to this line of questioning as immaterial.
I sustain the objection. Move on, Mrs. Molly.
So be it, Your Evasiveness. Would you please raise the right sleeve of your robe above your shoulder?
Objection, Your Honor!
Where are you going with this, counselor?
A mere examination of your muscularity and masculinity, Your Worship.
For the sake of full transparency, so be it, Mrs. Molly. But you are treading on thin ice.
He revealed His divine biceps.
Would you please turn around now, Your Worship?
And would the court reporter please read aloud the tattoo on His Impostorship’s back right shoulder.
Your Honor. Our central thesis is that you are an impostor, created by humans to place themselves as your pet species at the center of the universe, and to quench their greed for immortality. Men had the pen, and added their own patriarchal twist to creation. Unless this is a kangaroo court, it is only fair for us to be given the opportunity to present our evidence. Rumor has it that there is a tattoo on your right shoulder, left by your manufacturer.
Busted, God turned His back to the court reporter, who recoiled in horror.
The court reporter will please perform her requested duties.
Yes, Ma’am. It says, “Made by Menontop Enterprises, Ltd.”
Perhaps we are a step closer to solving the eternal riddle of the first cause, but if it would please the court, let’s take this one final step. Heavenly Father, would you please raise your robes and reveal your Holy Genitals for the court?
It would not please the court!
You have already proven that you are an impostor: created, not Creator. I am simply following through on the logical conclusions of your revelation. You are said to be male, and you have dodged but not contested this presupposition. You have set in motion the subjugation of women by men, for millennia, endorsed by Your Word. We find it reasonable to ask you to prove that Word, now that you have consented to visibility. We ask the court to direct the witness to lift up His robes.
God looked back and forth at Himself, engaged in an instantaneous divine debate, and reluctantly lifted his robes above His waist.
Almost in unison, the courtroom gasped aloud, voicing a single word.
Molly Awakens …
Molly awoke, startled, and puzzled by a three-letter word echoing back and forth between the walls of her skull. “Ken!” She felt strangely compelled to retrieve her old set of Barbie dolls from the back of her closet. Then sat with them and her dream. As she did so, her dilemma regarding her upcoming term paper in Humanities resolved itself. She pulled out her computer, and began to type. She titled the paper Feminism and Religion: Breaking the Divine Glass Ceiling, and began to write…
Feminists remain chained to an implicit Faustian bargain, imposed upon us centuries ago, but left unchallenged. We traded mortality for patriarchy. We have unwittingly sacrificed our power and equality on Earth for immortality in the supposed afterlife. We refuse to actively challenge God’s gender, out loud. Only by overthrowing God, and his biblical male inventors, can we assume our rightful role…
Read more about theology, prejudice, feminism, and anthropocentrism in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available in print and e-Book on Amazon. And if you care to do so, leave your own perspective on gender and religion in the comments section below. Thanks for playing.
Just in case your left brain is overheating after our first dozen blogs, let’s activate your right hemisphere with a little visual stimulation, and crank up the weird quotient while we’re at it. I started photography with a prehistoric Kodak camera, late in my first decade of life. My early photo albums are populated with standard issue shots of family, friends, and travels. I was told I had “an eye” for interesting shots, and enjoyed creating rectangles, but it wasn’t until my first digital camera a dozen years ago that I pushed experimentation over the edge. More recently I’ve graduated to “Zoomers,” but more about that later.
As a psychologist, I’m a student of emotion. I try to listen, understand, and communicate my understanding of clients’ feelings. My favorite response is “Exactly.” As a photographer, I try to induce emotions, positive as well as negative. It might be a heart-warming shot of a child or a puppy, the humor of two of my daughters, nose-to-nose sticking their tongues out at each other, the majesty of a landscape in the golden hour before sunset, or the sad sight of a stooped-over elderly Peruvian woman slowly making her way up some stone steps with a cane in her hand. But a decade ago, I found a way to induce two other emotions, in sequence: perplexity, followed by surprise. With closer friends, I’ve often enjoyed being a bit obscure, playful, mysterious, dark, and loosely associated in my humor, making you stop to think a second before you get my gist. Then I found a way to play the same game in photography.
If you don’t mind, open a second screen on your computer by going to edchandlerandbeyond.com; click on Photography, then scroll down to Galleries and click on The ?AHA! Experience. Take a look at each of the nine featured photos, and try to figure out what they are, before checking the Key down below them. How many did you figure out? What the hell am I doing here? In most cases, I’m zooming inside of the outer boundaries of objects, so you don’t have enough visual cues to immediately identify what you are looking at. “Ready, Set, Go” was my first Aha! shot, back in 1982, when my wife was oh so pregnant and ready to pop out our first daughter, Lauren. The only decent clues are the stitching of her bathing suit (which was useless after birth!), and the tiny little triangle of thigh flesh at the bottom. Or meander down to the tuba shot, “Geaux Tigers”. Yes, there are some guys in uniforms, perhaps identifiable as LSU band members, and some trees, but what’s the weird golden abyss in the middle? It takes a bit to figure out that it’s the throat of a tuba, because I deliberately zoomed in close enough to deprive you of cues: the outer edges of the tuba. Niagara Bound is a bit different, as a landscape version of Aha! The floating ice is clear enough, as are the smokestacks, kind of, but they’re upside down, because the factory is reflected. If I’d included a bit, or the entirety of the factory itself, above the waterline, the shot would have been a no-brainer. But that takes the fun out of the shot. By stealing your visual cues, I create a puzzle for you to solve. The goal is to perplex you, but only for five or ten seconds, until perplexity yields to surprise, the gift of the Aha! experience.
The ?Aha! Experience
Geaux Tigers - 2009
Niagara Bound - 2011
More recently, I got out of the photographic box in a different way: zoomers. Creativity involves loose thinking with just the right dose of conventionality. Too loose and you’re crazy; too conventional and you’re b-flat boring. I used joke with my daughters: “Get out of the box, but keep it on the horizon.” If you lose the box (reality) completely, you’re in deep shit, but if you’re too anchored to the box, you can find yourself snoring through life. Sometimes my daughters tell me I’m weird. I take it as a compliment and thank them. Mental health and maximum adaptation require a combination of opposites. Sometimes it pays to be extremely conventional and predictable. Other times it’s fun to be off the wall. It helps to know which is appropriate when, and to have a rheostat to dial up and down the dimension, any dimension.
Zoom lenses are very handy. You can zoom in and fill the frame with an object in the distance, or you can zoom out for a wide-angle shot that includes the bulk of your visual field. You can also adjust the length of your exposure. For example, with a waterfall, you can freeze it at 1/4000ths of a second, or get a silky flow by shooting from a tripod for two full seconds. One day, I was struck by an impulse to zoom in AND out during a long exposure shot. It took a while to figure out how to do it right, and how to find the right light sources to create worthy shots. Last Christmas, I hit the jackpot at the Denver Botanical Gardens (Thanks Loree!), where they lit up all their foliage with Christmas lights. I’d zoom in and out, and sometimes move the camera north and south, or east and west, for two, five, or ten seconds. Most of the shots were worthless, but I got a handful of arresting rectangles. Within the hour, I fancied myself as an abstract artist, using my camera as a paintbrush. Check out the three zoomers below. And remember: take time to play outside the box!
Many religious leaders talk as if religion has a monopoly on morality, and that one cannot act morally in the absence of religious belief. In Good Without God (2009), Epstein cited several advocates of the presumed religious monopoly on morality. For example, Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated (2004), “Without God there are no moral absolutes. Without moral absolutes, there is no authentic knowledge of right and wrong” (par. 4). Dostoevsky’s (1880/1993) character, Ivan Karamazov famously exclaimed, “If God is dead, all is permitted.” Likewise, in The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren (2002) asserted, “If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately… You could indulge yourself in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions” (p. 38). Yes, you could, but would you? This stance reflects what I call the criminal level of moral behavior. How would you act if you had a policeman on your shoulder? Would your behavior be much different from what you do when you’re sure that no one is watching? This distinction, between criminal morality and moral integrity, is quite relevant when we are trying to compute an individual’s moral quotient. Warren implied that without consequences, we are naturally immoral. But nature equips us with a conscience, and a capacity for empathy, not just an ability to anticipate likely consequences. It comes from within, regardless of whether it initially comes from above (from God), or from around us (socially). And it starts out emotionally, not cognitively. In the words of the primatologist, Frans de Wall (2013), who studied morality in other mammals, morality is “bottom up, not top down.”
Yes, it’s true. Without God-given ethics, humans are theoretically free to act like amoral, self-centered heathens. But it is also true that even with religiously-inspired morality, many humans act quite selfishly much of the time, and some are quite adept at killing each other, especially in the name of their various gods. It is also evident that despite religious press to the contrary, most atheists, and even some nonhuman animals, are capable of acting quite morally. Zuckerman (2014) cited research concluding that religious Americans tend to be more racist than secular Americans, more supportive of military aggression and the use of torture, the death penalty, and corporal punishment of children, while being less supportive of women’s and gay rights, and protection of the environment, than secular individuals. He also noted that atheists are grossly underrepresented in the prison population. Atheists are not immoral; they accept ownership of moral capabilities rather than exporting and re-importing them. Humans originally discovered virtues and vices in our interactions with each other. Religions objectified these virtues, attributed them to God, and claimed a moral monopoly. A secular approach to morality reaffirms such virtues, but not their alleged divine source. Certain virtues work, by promoting cooperation and connectedness with our brethren, which satisfies us at our moral and social core, not because someone in a temple or a courtroom says so. But if morality is subjective, do we have a right to judge others’ behaviors? Sure, we have a right to gather together and write laws to codify intersubjective morality and consequences. And we all have gut responses to others’ actions. But to borrow an AA phrase, we sometimes “should all over” ourselves when applying our moral principles, and our expectations, to others.
The illusion of objective ethics is a source of security for the masses, particularly if compliance is seen as being monitored, and rewarded or punished, by a divine overseer. Objective morality, monitored by an eye in the sky, may be seductive as a means of inducing social compliance, but is compliance really morality? As John Bradshaw (2009) wrote, “Obedience and respect for authority are a necessary part of the process of growing up morally, but if we stop there, we become arrested at a developmental stage that predisposes us toward the rigid polarization of rightdoing (good) and wrongdoing (evil)” (p. 33). He went on to note that such a focus promotes “moral totalism” and a “culture of obedience” characteristic of totalitarian regimes, rather than fostering moral intelligence. Morality is an internal affair. It operates within the mind, and specifically, within the conscience of an individual person. We can abdicate moral responsibility in two ways, via an atheistic, nihilistic devaluing of morality, or by outsourcing morality to a higher power, religious or political/legal.
We can make a case that moral choices predate cognitive instruction and discussions of morality, both phylogenetically and developmentally. De Wall provided convincing evidence for the presence of ethical behavior among primates, and a biological, evolutionary component to morality. He cited examples of empathy, compassion, fairness, altruism, gratitude, and community concern among primates, and underscored the role of attachment in morality, noting that we expect empathy only among animals that display parental attachment, which includes only a few reptiles. He added, “Mammalian maternal care is the costliest, longest-lasting investment in other beings known in nature” (p.49). Citing another source of primate morality, he added, “Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution” (p. 124). Moral behavior is abundantly evident in our evolutionary backyard, and is clearly not a unique capacity in human beings. The mammalian need to belong, coupled with our capacity for empathy with the feelings, needs and anguish of others (which is originally promoted by secure and loving attachments in childhood), drives moral behavior far more than rules or intellectual considerations. Likewise, Jonathan Haidt (2012) emphasized that moral choices are intuited before they are reasoned, stating, “Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning” (p. xx). Developmentally, moral behavior in children is evident long before their development of religious understanding or advanced cognitive skills. Likewise, one can argue that morality predates, and led to the appearance of religion, rather than viewing religion as the source of morality. De Wall noted that religions were invented to bolster morality, via an eye in the sky, once our communities became too large for everyone to know everyone else.
What people say (and are taught to believe) about morality, and what they do morally or immorally, are not as consistent as one might think, nor is an individual’s moral behavior from one situation to the next.Moral development is not primarily a result of moral instruction, though we have mistakenly prioritized this approach for centuries. If morality is more an emotional/intuitive than a cognitive operation, it should not be surprising that verbal instruction has its limits in developing moral character. Bradshaw (2009) proposed “a radical change in our approach to moral education,” involving an emphasis on the development of emotional and social intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to intrapsychic awareness and skill in the management of our internal emotional life, which contributes to social intelligence - the skillful handling of our social relationships. Cognitive factors are far from irrelevant, but again, emotional and social factors are emphasized. In particular, we must approach our own traumas and emotional injuries, and work through those radioactive emotions, rather than suppressing them, erecting a false self, and then acting out or numbing our disowned feelings. Bradshaw explained (2009), “We cannot fully develop our inborn capacity for moral intelligence without taking the feared journey of self-confrontation” (p. 261). With this self-awareness and self-soothing, we are better equipped to empathize and compassionately respond to others. Thus, the view of humans as essentially selfish has given way to a portrait of a species neurologically wired for empathy, and then primed via early attachment bonds to activate such empathy. Krznarik (2012) identified six habits of highly empathic people, including an “insatiable curiosity about strangers.”
It is ironic that atheists and religious individuals substantially agree on what constitutes moral behavior, but both often prefer to focus on the stark differences in their beliefs. We are all part-time hypocrites, sometimes violating our beliefs and values via contrary behavior. And we often find ourselves too critical and judgmental. We do better when we apply our subjective values to ourselves, while limiting our judgment of others. In addition to emphasizing practices over beliefs, and actions over thoughts, moral behavior is optimally active not passive. As Bradshaw (2009) noted, “One of the most important recovery rules I learned stated, ‘We have to act ourselves into the right way of feeling and thinking rather than trying to think or feel ourselves into the right way of acting’” (p. 60). Good deeds beget good feelings, which spur further moral action. Guilt (Bradshaw’s “guardian of the conscience”) is blatantly produced by our immoral actions, but also creeps in when we are too passive to step up and seize opportunities to act in situations calling for justice and compassion. Robust moral behavior is proactive rather than just passive or reactive, and it is positive rather than simply non-negative. Morality involves far more than the guilt-driven avoidance of immoral behavior. It also involves virtue and initiative, deliberately seeking opportunities to act upon your positive values. Morality may be subjective, and optional, but it is inherently rewarding. All this is well and good, but let’s see what my actual behavior looks like tonight.
The above passages come from Chapter 18, “Debunking Objective Morality and the Religious Monopoly on Morality,” and Chapter 19, “Ungodly Morality: Listening to Your Own Conscience,” in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, now available in print and e-Book on Amazon. Chapter Highlights from the Beyond Atheism are available at edchandlerandbeyond.com.
Thank you for listening, and for adding your own take on morality in your comments below, if you so choose.
Bradshaw, John. (2009). Reclaiming virtue: How we can develop the moral intelligence to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. New York, NY: Bantam.
De Wall, Frans. (2013). The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates. New York, NY: Norton.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. (1993). The brothers Karamazov. (D. McDuff, Trans.). London, England: Penguin. (Original work published 1880).
Epstein, Greg. (2009). Good without God: What a billion nonreligious people do believe. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Random House.
Mohler, Albert. (2004, November 7). Can We be Good Without God? Retrieved from: https://www.albertmohler.com/2004/11/08/can-we-be-good-without-god-2
Click on any topic above to read more about that subject matter.
Bridge Phobis - 2010
Let’s follow up on our earlier blog on death anxiety by addressing anxiety in general. To understand and manage anxiety, we must also pursue its relationship with avoidance. As with other emotions, there are healthy and unhealthy versions of anxiety. The healthy version of anxiety alerts us to potential real threats, dangers, and issues, allowing us to plan and to alter our behavior to manage such threats. Likewise, there are healthy versions of avoidance (e.g., avoiding a man with a gun; taking time out to calm down during a marital dispute). But we can also manufacture threats and anxiety, and resort to chronic, self-sabotaging avoidance behavior. Avoidance is a defense against anxiety, which provides short-term relief from anxiety. But a basic rule in learning psychology is that a reward increases the strength of the behavior preceding the reward. Thus, the reward, anxiety reduction, reinforces and strengthens the avoidance habit. And by avoiding the source of the anxiety, we lose opportunities to learn how to directly deal with and conquer the anxiety. Thereby, we often end up with long-term maintenance or escalation of both the avoidance and the anxiety. Defenses (such as avoidance) yield a short-term plus but a long-term minus, whereas coping skills (approaching difficult situations and feelings) increase immediate negative feelings (especially anxiety), but if handled well, yield long-term benefits, growth, and reduced anxiety.
Anxiety is often misunderstood, and is sometimes confused with depression or frustration. Anxiety is a feeling whose meaning is similar to fear, tension and nervousness. It is a tense feeling that arises when we fear something negative will happen in the near future. The anticipated crisis may be external, such as being ridiculed for a lousy presentation in front of coworkers later today, or internal, such as the danger of a suppressed memory of abuse surfacing, or fear that our anger will get out of control. Anxiety is different from depression, but often coexists alongside depression. Anxiety is a feeling, which can develop into various anxiety syndromes (Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, OCD, PTSD, etc.). Depression is a syndrome rather than a feeling, but often involves sadness as a primary feeling. Sadness typically involves a significant loss (e.g., loss of a loved one, rejection by a lover, loss of health, our job, etc.), and is often focused on the past, whereas anxiety is focused more on real or imagined threats in the future. Anxiety and depression commonly coexist, particularly as the consequences of anxiety and avoidance escalate into losses (e.g., social anxiety > avoidance > loneliness). Anxiety and frustration both involve tension, but anxiety typically involves worrying about what could happen in the near future, whereas frustration is about blocked expectations or desires during events that have already occurred.
Anxiety and fear live in the same neighborhood, but are not identical. Fear, and its extreme version, panic, are innate, automatic and adaptive survival responses to immediate danger. They precipitate a fight-or-flight response mediated by our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS, which controls automatic physical processes such as breathing and heart rate), and propel us toward immediate self-protection before it is too late. If your genetic ancestors were too mellow in their reactions to threats, you probably would not be reading this paragraph. Compared to panic, anxiety is a less intense but sometimes more chronic state of mind. It includes anticipation of, and worry regarding potential threats in the future, not just reactions to an immediate threat in the present. It involves a state of tension and apprehension, rather than a surge of panic. Some of us find ourselves in a relentless, self-defeating habit of constantly anticipating and preparing for a variety of future threats, both real and imagined.
Thus, on a cognitive level, constant preoccupation with potential threats will manufacture and multiply anxiety. For example, constant worrying can produce a generalized anxiety disorder. Negative thinking typically contributes to anxiety, and it is therefore important to monitor our thoughts to see if we engage in excessive worry, catastrophic "What if?" thinking, or obsessing. Worrying is simply a milder version of catastrophic thinking. It is not a feeling, but rather a type of thinking which produces the feeling of anxiety. Just as excessive expectations produce frustration, and blaming creates anger, worrying is a cognitive process which predictably produces its own feeling, anxiety. So what are the options if you are a worrywart? If we want to control our feelings, specifically our anxiety in this case, we need to learn how to control our thinking. One method for controlling worry involves utilization of a core resource in 12-step programs, the Serenity Prayer (“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference"). The profitable use of the Serenity Prayer first requires its third component, wisdom, followed by either acceptance or courage. The wisdom to determine what we can control or change, and what we cannot, is essential. It tells us which fork in the road to take, the path toward acceptance, or toward courageous, committed action. Reliance on the Serenity Prayer can markedly reduce frustration as well as worrying, because it directs us to let go of the unrealistic expectations that often fuel frustration.
Our behavior and lifestyle can also create anxiety. For example, anxiety can be created by relentlessly rushing around, during the time-managed lifestyles we are invited to lead in our modern industrialized society. If we can just cram five pegs into four holes during our three-hour outing, we can declare today a victory, and take our blood pressure meds later tonight. Physical factors, such as excessive caffeine, and poor nutrition or sleep, can also contribute to anxiety. Internally, unresolved issues, both past and present, can create or maintain anxiety. The anxiety becomes a signal, helpful feedback from inside, that something is wrong and should be attended to.
Sometimes our anxiety is more social in origin. Persons with a social phobia, the term sometimes used to describe social anxiety, typically function fairly comfortably and spontaneously in one-on-one situations with friends, since they typically know how their friends feel about them. However, with strangers, and particularly groups of strangers, especially if stuck in the spotlight of the group's attention, severe anxiety and even panic attacks may paralyze them. Fighting is obviously inappropriate, and therefore the fight-or-flight options associated with panic are reduced to flight (or freezing, which is also problematic in social situations). The problem in these situations is evaluation apprehension, that is, excessive concern and negative thinking regarding the impression one is making on other persons. In my view, there are four dominoes involved in social anxiety. Social phobics typically harbor low self-esteem, and engage in very negative internal self-talk about themselves. Then, they project their negative self-appraisals, and imagine (typically without evidence) that others are thinking negatively about them. This causes anxiety, which is then reduced by avoiding the people that are supposedly judging you so negatively. But the reduced anxiety is a reward that reinforces the avoidance behavior, which deprives us of the opportunity to interact with people and learn social skills, leaving us alone, lonely, and perhaps depressed. The healthy solution is to target our negative self-talk and projections rather than avoiding. To reduce social anxiety, we need to learn how to esteem ourselves, assess evidence rather than assuming others are judging us, and gradually approach rather than avoid people.
Anxiety is a broad topic, and we have only scratched the surface, delving mostly into generalized and social anxiety. For more, check out Chapter 27: “Anxiety and Avoidance Behavior,” in my recently published book, Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices. Available in print or e-Book on Amazon. Chapter Highlights for Beyond Atheism may be found at www.edchandlerandbeyond.com. And if you’d like, share your own perspective on anxiety and avoidance in the comments section below. Thanks for listening.
Not quite unanimous, but nearly so. The response to Ed Chandler’s Beyond Atheism has been enthusiastic beyond expectations. We have surveyed all corners of the planet, and found none (because it’s round, silly). But in the process of looking, we have been able to document only one person on the surface of earth who has been bored by BA (though those that were bored to death are subterranean, and perhaps underrepresented in our scientific survey). That one heretic is homegrown, from our own United States of America, specifically Lafayette, Louisiana. His picture is above, though we have chosen to omit his name, in part to protect him from any backlash from the fervent supporters of BA.
To those supporters, thank you! Many of you were able to take advantage of the free offering of BA. Extra thanks to those who have bought the print version. For my friends who are religious, I hope that you have been able to benefit from the spiritual and psychological approaches of BA without being too bothered by our differences over theistic issues. For those who are secularly inclined, thank you for the feedback; it has been rewarding to stimulate your thinking further. If any of you have the time to leave a customer review on Amazon, I would greatly appreciate it.
Thanks for your input and support, but please, if you recognize the infidel in the picture, please don’t call him. He’s sleeping quite comfortably.
Click any of the above key words to read more about the topics discussed today.
Never Again! - 2009
A picture tells a thousand words, in this case, six million and counting. The horror it evokes stems from our shame as a species, that we are capable of such an atrocity. We are so loving and clever at our best, and prefer this image, though we can be so cruel and moronic at our worst. How many Christchurchs will we endure before we see the oven in the mirror? How do we manufacture such ovens?
My first crossing of the intersection of politics and religion was at age 10, in 1960. As a young Catholic boy, I was very excited that Jack Kennedy was running for president. Then I discovered that both of my parents were voting for Richard Nixon. I had not yet developed the antipathy toward The Dick that moved me in college, but Jack versus Dick was a no-brainer, and the prospect of the first Catholic president was just the right chaser to the catechismic Kool-Aid I’d been drinking. What was wrong with my parents?
Fast-forward eight years. Entering college in 1968 was an exciting but mixed blessing. I was at the front lines of a cultural revolution, confronted with issues of war and peace, and love versus prejudice. The early 1968 wounds of the Tet Offensive, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were still bleeding. Adolescents are quick to smell hypocrisy, and I carried a bagful of question marks. If the religious message was “Love thy brothers and sisters,” why did Blacks and gays have to fight so hard for their rights? Why were we poisoning the homestead God had bequeathed us? Why were so many religious leaders supporting the war in Viet Nam? What was wrong with my priests? And if I couldn’t rely on my parents’ or priests’ judgment, where was I to turn?
Like many late adolescents, I learned to look within. And I began to research prejudice, which led me to my own research project: anthropocentrism. Understanding prejudice seemed like a moral imperative after World War II. As a species, we could not let the Nazi slaughter of the Jews pass us by without understanding it, and preventing a recurrence. It was all too easy to blame the inhuman Germans, the Nazi enemy, the despicable “other.” But was there something in the general human condition that fermented this atrocity?
The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al.) captured my interest. They spoke of ingroup/outgroup relations, and the ethnocentrists’ need to value and protect the ingroup, while segregating, scapegoating, and minimizing the influence of outgroups. Imagining my post-caveman roots, this made sense. Small marauding bands of hunter-gatherers had to protect themselves while competing with other groups for food and other scarce resources. But in a few short millennia, our weapons have graduated from clubs to guns to nukes. When everyone has the power to destroy each other and our common home, does it still make sense to glorify our ingroups and vilify our outgroups?
Ingroup/outgroup thinking imposes dichotomies upon diversity, reducing the broader multicolored palette of humanity into a two-category subject/object split, to some narrower version of “us,” pitted against “them.” At the racial level, outgroups include all races other than your own. At an international level, the outgroups involve the evil empires opposed by our own political club. On a domestic political level, the outgroup is the opposing political party. Never mind the fact that each party has half the loaf of wisdom, but we create gridlock by arguing over which half-loaf is true. On a religious level, the outgroups are the infidels, the imposters, the enemies of the one true faith. At an environmental level, the ingroup is our own species, while the outgroup is the rest of the environment, which can then be exploited to meet the needs of the human ingroup.
Adorno at al. described ethnocentrism as a broader term than prejudice, a frame of mind toward “aliens” in general, noting, “A primary characteristic of ethnocentric ideology is the generality of outgroup rejection… if he cannot identify, he must oppose; if a group is not ‘acceptable,’ it is ‘alien.’“ More recently, Adams (1994) has framed this issue as “a discourse of otherness” that has been “used to maintain dominance.” Discussing the politics of otherness, she noted, “Otherness unites those with power who can declare their similarities to be decisive” (p. 72), while devaluing other groups, thereby justifying discrimination, domination, and exploitation.
Digressing briefly into my own research, otherness and prejudice operate at the species level as well. Even the broad category, humanity, can be contrasted with a suitable outgroup. Anthropocentrism (man-centeredness) views mankind as the most important entity in the universe, with the exception of God, who we created in the first place to cement our grandiose pose at the center of the universe. God over man over animal; the “Chosen” over the “other.” Devaluation justifies exploitation and persecution, of animals, slaves, infidels, etc. Thus, anthropocentrism fuels theism, and is a form of prejudice at the species level, valuing humans over other life forms, which justifies exploitation, in this case, of the environment. But God created and favors us, and will certainly protect all of us, or at least most of us, and our planet from demise. Not to worry; He’ll bail us out. Values are subjective – we get to choose – but often, might makes right, and the most powerful ingroup rules.
The political right wing and the religious right are bedfellows, just as the bedroom next door is shared by political and religious lefties. One difference between the two is that the righties are quicker to emphasize ingroup/outgroup distinctions. On the left, there is more emphasis on our similarities than our differences, more tolerance of “otherness,” more embracing diversity, more identification with larger, more inclusive groups, such as humanity or life. On the negative side of the ledger, the left is prone to confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, inviting excessive socialist redistribution, which negates incentives for initiative and responsibility (dooming Marxist economies). But the right tends to ignore the stultifying impact of poverty and prejudice, as if everyone starts on an equal playing field. It’s the old philosophical argument between free will (on the right) and determinism (on the left), acted out comically by Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. Again, it’s half loaves. In our darker moments, the left blows the budget and rewards laziness, while the right fans the flames of prejudice and pursues outgroups via militarism.
As Jonathan Haidt explained so well in his The Righteous Mind, liberals prioritize care/harm and fairness, over additional values that are more likely to attract conservatives, such as loyalty, authority, and sanctity. So we end up with the left protecting the individual rights of members of outgroups, and espousing a broader human consciousness, while the right protects the purity and safety of the ingroup. In our country, the entrenched ingroup is white, Christian, heterosexual, and largely male. Now that ingroups and outgroups of many political/religious persuasions have learned how to manufacture nuclear weapons, our planet has become a tinderbox. Have we not outgrown our need for the ingroup/outgroup focus that protected us in the days of old?
On a political level, a coup by the far right has recently overrun the sensibilities of the Republican Party, fueling a revival of prejudice. The same process has occurred in the Muslim world, where Whabbists have outmaneuvered moderate Muslims, fanning the flames leading to 9/11 and its variants. While they are religious enemies, the Christian far right and the Muslim far right are remarkably similar psychologically. Outgroups are vilified as threats, enemies, and immoral heathens, who are invading and polluting the homeland. For them, America is the Great Satan. Our own list of enemy outgroups is lengthy, recently targeting Muslims, Mexicans, queers, liberals, and atheists, with Jews and blacks slipping down the list, but still firmly anchored there. The far right is nazifying America, at least one-quarter of us, and the world as well. Just this week, Muslims were massacred in the sacred confines of their own mosques in Christchurch. We are seeing an echo of the Crusades, using terrorists rather than Holy armies.
What justifies comparisons to the swastika? After all, we are not sending outgroups to the ovens. But we are witnessing repeated massacres, whose intent is terror and promotion of white supremacy. And there are abundant lesser injustices perpetrated against outgroups. Increasing vilification of “them” and their “otherness” is tacitly encouraged by passivity, denial, covert approval and even outright racism at the top of our political chain. An emphasis on ingroups versus outgroups sets the stage for prejudice, which in turn sets the stage for persecution and terrorism against outgroups. We are far from the abhorrent “Final Solution,” but the foundation that led to it is being rebuilt before our eyes, while our melting pot suffers. We have seen this before. The defeat of Germany in World War I was a narcissistic injury that escalated into fascism and ingroup retaliation promoted by a narcissistic leader in the 1930’s. Here at home, 9/11 has had a similar impact, though we’d like to think that our institutions are strong enough to hold the fort.
On the religious far right, hypocrisy operates in plain sight, though its practitioners are blinded by a selective interpretation of the Bible (e.g., gays are immoral, Muslims are infidels). Are mere beliefs sustenance enough? Do we not have to practice them in our behavior? “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is an attractive sounding moral value, until it morphs into “Love thy ingroup.” It can easily devolve further, into “Destroy your enemy.” Some of our outgroups do the same thing, putting us on a war footing, which is increasingly dangerous as the nuclear club grows. At this rate, somebody (most likely with God on their side) is going to become sufficiently dogmatic or impulsive to invite the dawn of nuclear winter. Instead of a single-minded focus on keeping nukes out of the hands of the infidels, we might want to put more energy into not just tolerating, but embracing diversity. We all bleed, and we all love our children. Our similarities dwarf our differences, and our differences can be viewed as charming variations of a central theme: humanity. We must respect “otherness.” Look in the mirror, where the conclusion is obvious. The enemy is us.
Read more about prejudice, morality, politico-religious values, and anthropocentrism in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available now on Amazon (www.amazon.com/author/edwardchandler -link to the book and Ed’s author page where The Blog’s also now are being posted). And if you care to participate in this provocative subject, give us your take on morality, politics and religion in the comments section below.
Adorno, Theodor, Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D., & Sanford, N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Adams, Carol. (1994). Neither man nor beast: Feminism and the defense of animals. New York, NY: Continuum.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Random House.
Share this Blog and earlier Blogs with your friends …