I have often thought that the Latin title for human beings, Homo Sapiens, is perhaps not the most appropriate name for our species. It was bestowed on humans because of their ability to reason. Quite often our reasoning processes leave something to be desired and despite our large brain and reasoning capacity it does not take much investigation to show that we still do rather foolish things.
In our book The Myth of Nine to Five, the good Dr Phil and I argued that the distinctly human capacity is our self-awareness. Our consciousness bestows on us not only the capacity to think but, importantly, to be aware of our thoughts. This brings a whole new dimension to our lives. From this arises our uniquely human need for a sense of meaning and purpose which are our spiritual needs. It would therefore seem to me to be more appropriate to name our species Homo Spiritualis.
Our most recent census revealed that fewer and fewer of us are turning to conventional religious beliefs to derive our sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Some commentators complain that as a result we are losing our moral compass. They tend to assume that we are innately sinful and it is only if we live under the watchful gaze of a vengeful God who will punish us for our transgressions will we refrain from murder, adultery, covetousness and so on. This framework of fear basically underscores the three religions of “The Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But this is an elitist view and there is little evidence to support the supposition that religious believers are likely to be more moral than atheists and agnostics.
But let me hasten to add that I count among my friends many who have conventional religious beliefs and who lead exemplary lives.
The demographer Bernard Salt argues that there is less stigma now than there used to be for those eschewing conventional religion which has enabled people to be more honest in revealing their diminishing attachment to conventional religion. It is also true (as I have recently argued in other essays) that many people without strong belief still enjoy being part of a religious community and participating in the celebrations and traditions of those religions. They would still likely identify with the religion of their custom or culture in such a census.
Australian sociologist, Hugh Mackay has written:
Religion is not only about the desire for something to believe in; it’s sometimes about the desire for something to look forward to and the desire to belong. Most varieties of religious belief have been captured and dogmatised by institutions, and their tribes and communities are tight knit. Many people who once believed and no longer do – or who are no longer sure whether they do or not – continue to identify themselves with religious labels, shamelessly using religion as a source of tribal identity
Some religious beliefs appear to the more sceptical of us as rather fanciful. But to add to this, with the diminution of religious influence, some of us look to strange and irrational places to find something to believe in. It is obvious that our need to believe in something often overwhelms our capacity to discern sensible options.
One of the impediments to our understanding of the universe is our desire to believe we are somehow special and that the universe has somehow been fashioned for our benefit. Most of the major religions embrace creation myths that helped our ancestors answer in a primitive way the fundamental questions of, “Where did I come from?” and “Why am I here?”
It seems obvious to me that the frontiers of knowledge are expanding as our capacity to know the universe grows. Consequently it troubles me that so many of us rely for our religious beliefs on the writings of unsophisticated and comparatively ignorant men (and yes they are predominantly men) of ancient times.
Now it is true that the words attributed to the likes of Jesus and, indeed, the Buddha, are very insightful with respect to their understanding of the human condition and that part of their teachings should be given proper credence; but to depend on such sages who had no idea of modern physics to explain the physical world and how it came to be is just foolish. As I have outlined in many other previous essays, much sorrow has emanated from those that believe in the literal truth of the alleged recorded writings and sayings of their ancient prophets and sages.
We seem to have different standards when we pursue a spiritual path to what we apply to other areas of our lives. No one seems to be surprised if a spiritual adviser told us to read the Bible to enhance our spiritual understanding; but if our medical advisor told us to go and read the works of the Greek physician Galen to enhance our medical understanding we would most likely be astonished!
Religious fundamentalism, as I have often written, is dangerous in many ways. But militant atheism seems to me to bear many of the hallmarks of a religion and its fundamentalists are dangerous too. In this league I would instance Richard Dawkins. Dawkins in his zeal to promote science over religion compares the very worst of religion with the very best of science! Such cherry-picking does no credit to the atheist cause.
In their religious fervour, believers often create idols out of their scriptures – the Torah for Jews, the New Testament for Christians, and more infamously, the Koran for Muslims. Fundamentalist Muslims murder those defacing the Koran. At least Dawkins can argue that it is unlikely that burning a scientific tract would put your life at risk!
But people seek meaning in places remote from religion. Some resort to Tarot Cards or astrology to guide their lives. Others make gods of their sporting or political heroes. Many are drawn to worship at the feet of film stars and pop idols.
It would seem to me though, it is useful to bear in mind a few principals when coming to our beliefs, rather than just adopting those of significant others or bowing to the popular culture of our particular society. Our spiritual needs are very important to our sense of well-being and as a result deriving a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives deserves real consideration. Consequently the underpinning beliefs that we rely on for that purpose need to be well considered.
Firstly it seems that debate in this arena is largely dominated in the struggle between science and religion. Some often talk disparagingly about the “God of the gaps”. They assert that God is only needed because science is yet unable to explain everything. They point out that the rapid advance of scientific knowledge in the last couple of centuries has eliminated many unknowns and doubts concerning the physical world. They confidently assert that one day in the future there will be no gaps that God is required to fill.
This is, indeed, an erroneous assumption. It is beyond the capacity of any single human mind to understand the universe. There will always be gaps in our knowledge. Whilst it is true that many of the questions our ancestors asked in the past have been adequately answered by science, as we have evolved and our understanding grew, more and deeper problems are unearthed. The known universe has expanded as our capacity to understand it has increased. I see no end to this process. Consequently there will always be mysteries for us to grapple with. (And a good thing too – a universe totally understood strikes me to be a rather sterile environment!)
On the other hand it seems to me that the universe is a manifestation of the collective Mind which all sentient beings participate in.
This suggests two things to me:
- Religion shouldn’t contest those areas of knowledge where science poses well-reasoned, demonstrable solutions. (I have in mind here such things as evolution, the age of the universe and so forth. Moreover these issues seem only to have great import to the fundamentalists who have allowed their religious beliefs to be curtailed by unthinking literalism.)
- That human intuition, which sometimes seems to derive from an unconscious connection to the collective Mind, is often worth considering in approaching the mysteries that are beyond the ken of reason.
Psychology also has some pointers about what is profitable for us to believe.
The positive psychology movement founded by Martin Seligman has demonstrated that those whose lives are guided by a cause greater than themselves are intrinsically happier. Whilst such a cause has often been provided by religion there are many other options.
The good Dr Phil has always proposed that the way to psychological maturity has three stages, viz.
- To know yourself,
- To accept yourself, and then
- To forget yourself.
This philosophy is largely reflected in Buddhism as well where subduing “the self” is of paramount importance.
Finally as I have often said in my essays, most people take on their religious beliefs mindlessly by adopting those of their family, peer group or that which dominates in their geographic locality. One’s spiritual beliefs are too important to be acquired in such a random way. I know this is not possible in many communities, but where it is, I would urge people to look at the options and then choose very carefully.
Homo Spiritualis then is destined to search for a sense of meaning and purpose. In coming to a landing on what one should believe, there is a role for both science and religion, Logos and Mythos. An enlightened person seeks to know about both and to tailor their beliefs accordingly. Someone devoutly religious who is blind to the discoveries of science is deficient, just as someone is who worships science but ignores the truths embedded in the parables and metaphors of religion that teach us much about the human condition.
Our humanity would be advanced if we could have reasonable discourse between science and religion as well as reasoned discourse between competing religions.
But given the needs of Homo Spiritualis there is an ongoing requirement to reconcile Mythos and Logos and their place in our spiritual lives.