July 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve moved my blog to exploringmyreligion.org. This is a great research website with surveys to explore personality, spirituality, and morality. I’ll be posting there in the blog section.
My content will remain pretty much the same. I’m interested in making obtuse research relevant, especially around philosophy, religion, science, and health. So, you can expect my writing to wander around those topics.
Thank you for visiting and definitely check out my new blog.
April 6, 2013 § 1 Comment
When evolutionary psychologists look at religion they tend to highlight the way it could strengthen communities to make them one successful. The intuitions behind this theory also spur a large body of research linking religiosity to prosocial behavior. As Robert Putnam famously put it: they make better neighbors. They’re more generous, trustworthy, helpful, cooperative, and generally healthier. … or so the theory goes. But a recent review of these studies suggest that we may be drawing too simple and hasty conclusions.
“Prosocial” is the technical term for the person you would want to watch your dog when you go on vacation or the friend who is always willing to help you move. It involves volunteering, donating, sharing, and cooperation, or personality traits like agreeableness and empathy. These studies also extend from behaviors and personality traits into general health and well-being. Any concept this diverse eludes easy comparison, especially when compared with something as complex as religiosity. But the general impression emerging from these studies suggests a correlation between religiosity and prosocial behaviors.
This research isn’t just about what makes people nice people. It’s especially significant because it supports theories in evolutionary psychology about the ubiquity of religious behavior. The dramatically simplified argument is that religious societies were better equipped to handle the difficulties of living and working together (a task we all know can be trying at times) and therefore likely to outcompete neighboring communities. Research linking religiosity and prosocial behavior isn’t just about whether religion makes people nicer, it also has dramatic consequences for how we understand the origin of religion and the role of religion in culture today.
To handle this wide breadth of research, Luke Galen, a psychologist at Grand Valley State University, conducted a comprehensive survey of these studies. He organized the research into three groups: naturalistic studies, controlled economic studies, and priming studies, each of which I will review below. In each case Galen critiques the assumptions that religion is causally connected to prosocial behavior and highlights research which forces us to be a little more careful with the complexity of this topic.
Naturalistic studies attempt to observe prosocial behavior in a natural context. Therefore they typically rely on self-reports or peer-reports. Any data about donations or volunteering fall into this category. And typically these reports show that religious people are more charitable and volunteer more. But Galen challenges this conclusion on two different fronts.
First he cites a body of research revealing a cultural religion-morality stereotype. This comes as no surprise when we consider the reverse stereotype against atheists, who remain one of the most vilified groups in American culture. Studies show that this prejudice often operates on an non-conscious level, affecting how we perceive the morality of those around us. Given this bias, how much should we really trust self-reports or peer-reports? Galen argues pretty persuasively that they aren’t especially reliable.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell what exactly counts as a charitable donation. While religious individuals consistently report greater charitable giving, most of these gifts go to religious organizations. Of course those donations still count as charity and are still generous and prosocial. But if that charity is concentrated within the group then it challenges assumptions about more universal prosocial behavior among the religious. In other words, the religious may be nicer, but primarily to those who are like them.
This in-group favoritism, a preferential treatment towards those who are similar to yourself, comes into sharper focus when Galen turns to examine the controlled economic studies of prosociality. These studies use a variety of games to measure generosity, trust, and cooperation.
One example is the public goods game- in this game players donate to a common pool of money. That pool of money is then doubled and redistributed to all the players regardless of their contribution. The way to earn the most money in this game is to donate nothing and have everyone else donate, then you sit back and reap the benefits of other’s generosity. But if everyone adopts this strategy then you end up with the worst option: nobody’s money is increased. So participation requires trust and cooperation. Each of the economic games are different, but all are designed to measure some level of trust, cooperation, or generosity.
Amidst the varying conclusions of this research the consensus agree on a strong in-group generosity. When a religious participant was asked to cooperate with someone with a different religious identity, their prosocial behavior was lower than when the partner shared the same identity. So religious individuals do tend to share more and cooperate more, but only when the person they are sharing or cooperating with is similar.
While this trend definitely points to an in-group preference among religious individuals, it also may affirm the wider religious-morality stereotype which Galen described before. Religious participants were consistently given greater offers and more trust than non-religious participants. In-group favoritism explains part of the trend, but this tendency was even present across group difference. Without these important caveats, it’s easy to draw the simple conclusion that re-enforces the religion-morality stereotype: that religious people are more generous and cooperative. Galen draws on a wide sampling of research to show that it’s just not that simple.
The final group of studies that he review are those which use priming techniques. Priming’s a way to activate certain memories and concepts so that they are more present on people’s minds and therefore influential. It’s similar to cramming for a test, but in experiments it’s often done subliminally. To prime individuals’ religious concepts, researchers will often embed religious words within a scrambled sentence task. Participants think they are solving a word problem, but they are also activating religious ideas which may then affect their behavior. Another way to prime participants is to conduct the study in a religious versus a secular context.
Once primed, individuals are then engaged in tasks similar to the economic games described above. Priming experiments are especially compelling, because they reveal stronger and more consistent trends than the economic tasks alone. In nearly all the studies, religious priming resulted in more generous offers and more sharing. This body of research provides pretty conclusive evidence that priming religious concepts activates more prosocial behavior in individuals.
But Galen compares these religious priming experiments with similar secular priming examples- like priming people with the words civil or court. These concepts seem to have identical effects as their religious counterparts. One novel example is that priming with the category of super hero increases volunteering behaviors, but nearly any reminder of a watchful third party can reliably increase individual’s honesty. So while religious primes instigate prosocial behavior, it is likely the authoritarian, watchful, aspect of the concept which causes the increased generosity.
Within each section of the literature, Galen points out the difficulties which complicate any direct correlation between religiosity and prosociality. But this is to be expected. Religiosity is a complex category and while there are issues with each individual study, the literature continually points to some correlation between the two. The question becomes why.
Galen recognizes belonging as the most robust correlate to prosocial behavior. Being actively religious is likely to bring people into social groups and increase their sense of community. This is the same conclusion that Putnam and Campbell came to in their monumental work on religion in America: American Grace. In their words- religious belief turned out to be “utterly irrelevant” to good neighborliness. What matters are the religiously based social networks. But if this is the primary correlate to prosociality then we end up in a bit of a tautology: those who are the most socially engaged demonstrate the most prosocial behaviors.
Of course the relationship is more complex that this logical circle implies. Galen argues that this simplification emerges in part from an oversight in the research. These studies often do not include the non-religious as part of the sample. Those which do include the full spectrum of religiosity reveal a curvilinear dynamic where the confidently nonreligious resemble the confidently religious. One reason this might be the case is that prosocial behaviors are often supported by strong conviction, self-control, and nonconformity. By studying the full continuum of religiosity, this research could begin to understand how religiosity might promote each of these more specific characteristics and thereby shed more light on the complex relationship between religiosity and being a good neighbor.
It’s worth noting that Galen’s critiques do not undermine the evolutionary explanations of religion. In fact, the strong in-group bias is exactly what one would expect from an evolved prosociality within religion. Furthermore, evolutionary psychologists have pointed to the supernatural authoritarian function of religion as an advantageous means of preventing free-riders within a group. If people think they’re being watched, and judged, by a supernatural omniscient being, then they are more likely to conform to social expectations. So, while religious belief may not make people better neighbors, the cohesion which religion likely assisted may have made our ancestors better teams.
December 22, 2012 § Leave a comment
Within minutes of meeting Dr. Sara Bhattacharji she was sharing this story from her days in a health clinic in rural Tamil Nadu, India:
“When two physicians started the clinic, a couple of decades ago, it was the only medical facility for about 80 km. That’s pretty far if you’re traveling by foot or by mule. Most of our work was general care, but sometimes people came in with more serious injuries. One of those days a man from the neighboring village came in with his hand wrapped in old cloth. During a local fight his hand had been badly cut, so I set to work cleaning and stitching up the wound. As I was working we talked and I asked what he planned to do once his hand healed. Expecting the man to talk about returning to his work as a carpenter, he instead looks up and says ‘I’ll find that bastard who did this and cut off his nose.’”
“So the hand I was repairing would be used to inflict more harm. I could cure this man’s hand, but could I heal him?”
Over the following days I learned from Dr. Sara how the currents and questions of health run beneath every part of life. We have an amazing capacity for cure. This past summer I worked in an orthopedic hospital where spines were rebuilt and people were given new knees. Technology progresses and we are gradually able to fix more and more of our parts. This is incredible and by distinguishing cure from healing, I do not wish to demean our amazing ability to cure. Without the ability to cure, our capacity to heal would be greatly diminished. But when we become fixated on cure, we often become fixated on parts and risk losing sight of the integrated and multidimensional people we are.
Entering the hospital we often become isolated from our families and friends as they are limited to visiting hours. We also lose autonomy over the most intimate parts of who we are: our bodies. Eating, shitting, and sometime even breathing are taken over by the experts. This allows the experts to affect amazing cures, but what is lost in this style of care?
I don’t claim to have any answers. I am a pure amateur when it comes to our health system. But as I toured around with Dr. Sara deeper questions about what we mean by health kept arising. I find it impossible to isolate who we are into parts and pieces. Instead I see each of us suspended in a web of relationships. You can no more separate the hand from the body than you can separate our selves from our relationships. Sometimes that separation allows us to fix the hand but what would it even mean to “fix” an isolated self? What happens to our health when we lose sight of those relationships with our environment, our communities, our families, our selves?
If you’ll permit me one more story:
The day after meeting with Dr. Sara, I joined her colleague Dr. Sushil John on home visits in Old Town, one of the slums of Vellore. The area is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and gutters full of garbage and sewage. The bright colors of the simple concrete homes are fading and nearly any unused space has been roofed over with leaves, corrugated iron, or whatever else is on hand, and become someone’s home. Goats, dogs, and chickens roam the footpaths and leave a minefield of feces. Reflecting the economic situation of the majority of Indians, most men here earn about $2 a day, while women average $1.
Walking with Sushil through this ramshackle maze is like walking with a celebrity. As a tall, white man I’m used to attracting a large amount of attention. But here I’m a sideshow to Sushil the main event. Persistently the physician, he humbly deflects praise and seeks to connect and assess. Here we meet Edward.
Sushil found Edward the same way he finds most of his patients: through the community network built up by a group of women working with the hospital. While Sushil was working with a neighbor Karti, who suffers from schizophrenia, he was pulled aside to see Edward. Edward used to work as a painter, but he fell from a ladder and the resulting spinal injury left him a quadriplegic. In this setting he was left to lay on his bed and slowly fade away. There is not much that Sushil can do for a quadriplegic, but he taught Edward’s family how to change his clothes, treat his bed sores, and deal with his catheter. This is far from a cure, but it at least provided a degree of comfort amidst the suffering.
Dr. Sara and Sushil run a unit called the Low Cost Effective Care Unit, connected to Christian Medical College, one of the premier hospitals in Asia. In addition to working with the poor of Vellore, this unit also runs a life skills program to help teenagers develop skills and knowledge around health, time and money management, communication, interpersonal relationships, and goal setting. These skills are a ladder out of Old Town. One of the boys going through this program knew about Edward and approached some of the women with his idea. Together they helped Edward set up a business adding credit to people’s cell-phones. Once word got out, the support for this project has been incredible and now Edward is earning a steady income. Before this would be unheard of, but now he is supporting his family and regaining a sense of dignity and purpose.
The effects ripple outward. When Sushil first met Karti, the man with schizophrenia who led him to Edward, Karti was extremely violent and non-verbal. He spent most of his time locked in a small room because his family had no other way to handle him. Sushil prescribed some anti-psychotics which the family mixed into Karti’s food each day. Within three months he was not only speaking and non-violent, he was able to come out and interact in the community. From there they were able to hone and refine his treatment plan so that when I met Karti days ago he was downright amiable.
I share this tangent because I met Karti at Edward’s home. Once a day Karti comes over and helps Edward keep records for his business. At the same time Edward gives Karti a steady friendship which is vital to his mental stability and well-being. Neither of these men will be cured, but I can’t look at their story without seeing an extraordinary amount of healing.
August 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
I heard about this Jewish guy who said God is love. It got him in a bunch of trouble with authorities, so that’s probably a good place to start.
After all, those moments of vulnerable openness when we encounter what we thought was other and find him/her/it to be lovable (and perhaps even love us) are among the most divine we experience. Think of the release and thrill and growth of those moments- how could they not be connected to whatever is sacred. So there’s something substantive: God is love.
What about all those moments that aren’t so Pollyanna-ish? What about those moments of fear that can override our lives? Not scary movie fear, but that insidious fear that makes us shut down, the fear that separates us from our true selves and turns loved ones into others… are we really going to say that God is absent from those moments? If you believe in God, then that absence would be cruelty on top of abuse. So there’s something else substantive: God is fear.
Or imagine something so primordial and large that it could give birth to both fear and love, along with spontaneity and laughter and strange ferns that live off the moisture in the air. God would have to be at least that big. So there’s my final substantive claim: the sacred is beyond conception.
And by definition, that’s about where my imagination fails me, so I’ll stop this hack theology and ask the real question:
Is an unwillingness to make definitive claims about god really a problem? In fact, haven’t those claims caused plenty of problems already? Perhaps dwelling in ambiguity doesn’t enliven the masses the same way self-assured, confident statements do. But is the goal to enliven the masses or is the goal to model a proper response to whatever is True and Beautiful and Good in our cosmos?
I’d rather choose the later and trust than quicken with a false idol. Besides, the people who want the comfort and surety of definitive statements about God- they are already going to where those statements are a dime a dozen.
It’s not that the rest of us want ambiguity, we want truth. We accept ambiguity because of the movement it inspires. We accept the ineffability of the sacred because then we are drawn to seek it. Quite frankly, we accept the unknown because it’s a hell of a lot more fun than dwelling in a comfort zone built from sure, definitive statements.
What’s wrong with the progressive church isn’t a lack of god-talk. What’s wrong with the progressive church is the inability (unwillingness) to guide us on that journey. The church is unwilling because it’s more concerned with its own perpetuity. The spiritual journey inherently transcends these domestic boundaries and is therefore unsafe for an institution upheld by doctrine and belief.
So we go elsewhere. God talk isn’t going to bring us back. Life and value would bring us back.
The secular seeker
August 13, 2012 § 3 Comments
A compendium of the sociology of religion & the World Values Survey
This question fuels a persisting debate at the heart of the sociology of religion. Does modernization lead to secularization? Any answer to this question demands explanation. If modernization causes religiosity to fade, then why? If not, then how are we to understand the seemingly common trend of religious influence diminishing in the wake of modernization? Over the past decades the theory of secularization has fallen to the wayside, but two political scientists, Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, are amassing a prodigious body of data that brings the debate back to life. With the World Values Survey, they suggest that religion fades not necessarily as a country develops economically, but as a country becomes more existentially secure.
Of course, that concept needs clarification, but it’s worth reviewing where the secularization debate currently stands. Secularization refers to the movement of parts of society away from association with religious institutions or values. A prime example from western Europe is the movement of schools from monastic and cathedral institutions in the 9th and 10th centuries to the public universities we have today.
Many social thinkers have postulated that as a culture develops secularization will occur across all parts of society, The sociologist Peter Berger was a strong advocate of this theory through the later half of the 20th century. But evidence of growing religiosity across the world, particularly fundamentalist resurgences, led him to famously recant the secularization hypothesis as inadequate. Social theorists today are still trying to come to terms with the complex relationship between culture and religion.
This debate is especially pertinent for the relationship between religion and science. All too often the two are seen to be at odds. In fact, many theorists who support secularization theories point to science and the advance of rational thought as the undermining antagonist to religion. This is the classical Weberian argument that magical and metaphysical faith is dispelled by a new trust in science and technology. If Inglehart and Welzel are correct, then this assumption may need to be re-examined.
Other proponents of the secularization hypothesis follow the functionalist argument first put forward by Emile Durkheim. For functionalists, religion becomes irrelevant when the institution’s comprehensive role in education, health, and welfare is taken over by secular institutions. The only religious parts of New England Baptist Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center are their names. These theorists contend that as a country develops, specialization and industrialization displace religious functions.
Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke challenge these traditional secularization theories by viewing the religious landscape of a culture as a marketplace. They assume that the demand for religion remains constant, so differences in religiosity must be a result of different policies regulating religious institutions. Pluralism and competition act like the free market and drive up religiosity. In particular Finke and Stark point to the religiosity and pluralism of the US as a prime example supporting their theory.
In the book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Inglehart and political scientist Pippa Norris argue that America’s religiosity doesn’t necessarily discount the secularization theory. Rather than follow Weber or Durkheim, they offer a new account of development based upon values and existential security. To support this new account, they draw upon over thirty years of data from 87 countries around the world. This data is all compiled through the World Values Survey, which gives an unprecedented view of how a culture’s ethos changes as it undergoes development. In particular this research sheds light on each of the theories outlined above.
The marketplace theory proposed by Stark and Finke holds up the US as its prime example of how religious diversity and competition fuel religiosity. They are right to do so, since the US is among the most religious nations in the developed world. But the other two are Italy and Ireland, both of which have near religious monopolies by the Roman Catholic Church. The WVS has enough compiled data to graph the relationship between religious pluralism and religiosity (measured by regularity of attendance and private practice). The resulting scatter-plot looks like a Pollock painting: there’s no clear relationship.
But discounting one theory doesn’t confirm the other. Inglehart and Norris have to explain why the US is so religious. But before we get to their existential security theory, it’s worth exploring the implications for the Weberian account of secularization.
This account is especially of interest to anyone who thinks rationality and science are at odds with religious belief. In some of their most compelling graphs, Inglehart and Norris show that the most secular nations are also the most skeptical about scientific progress. This skepticism was measured by questions like: “In the long run, do you think the scientific advances we are making will help or harm mankind?” A higher trust in scientific advance actually corresponds with higher rates of religious belief. Those nations most skeptical of scientific progress – the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark – are also among the least religious.
Despite the intuitive appeal of the Weberian explanation, this surprising result makes sense. If rational thought was the true “dispeller” of religion, then it would be difficult to explain fluctuating levels of religiosity within a culture. Rational thought, once learned, doesn’t necessarily go away. But levels of religiosity can fluctuate rather dramatically within a couple of generations.
What fluctuates as dramatically as religiosity? Inglehart and Norris argue that existential security not only fluctuates as dramatically, but that it’s the actual driver of religious ebb and flow.
Existential security is a somewhat fuzzy term. They define it as “the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted.” So as a culture moves from agrarian to industrial to post-industrial, the feeling that everyone will survive into old age increases along with socio-economic development. Inglehart and Welzel argue that you can track existential security with a few basic measures such as per capita GNP, rates of AIDS/HIV, access to clean water, and number of doctors available. Over and over again, they demonstrate that these indicators serve as remarkably accurate predictors of how frequently people within a culture worship or pray.
What they are putting forward is a more nuanced, and complex, view of what changes during development. Instead of simply watching economic growth, they have developed a measure of multi-faceted ways a society changes. Existential security is related to socio-economic development, but development does not guarantee a feeling of security.
Take the US, for example. Inglehart and Norris argue that the high levels of religiosity in the US are driven by the high economic inequality in the US: the highest among highly developed nations They contend that this inequality heightens a sense of insecurity. The second highest level of inequality is Ireland (also the second most religious). The roughly linear relationship between economic inequality and frequency of prayer does not guarantee their theory. But it’s part of a larger opus that continually demonstrates an inverse relationship between existential security and religiosity.
Often this sort of research can come across as anti-religious. From a development and political perspective, religion can seem condemned to the status of annoyance or temporary illusion to be discarded. One striking element of Inglehart and Norris’ book is its lack of anti-religiosity. Instead, the secularization of nations is presented as a byproduct of a larger trend.
In fact, they point to the persistence and growth of spiritual concerns as religion declines in a culture. At the same time a society becomes more secular, more people also report thinking about the meaning of life more often. One could argue that this is precisely due to the decline of religion. But Inglehart and Norris see this trend as part of the emergence of post-materialist needs which arise in a post-industrial society. It would nicely account for the rise of New Age spirituality or the spiritual-but-not-religious contingency in the West.
Whether you accept their theory connecting existential security and religiosity or not, the World Values Survey offers an tremendous asset to anyone seeking to understand the relationship between development and religion. If Inglehart and Norris are correct, then theologians and sociologists alike are given a host of new questions about the nature of religion, culture, and existential security.
July 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
There are sections of our country where no machines are allowed. I know, that sounds like science fiction, but it’s true. Only simple machines are allowed in the wilderness: levers, wheels, pulleys, inclined planes, screws, wedges. Wheel barrow? Nope, that’s a lever and a wheel and therefore a complex machine. Bike? All those gears and wheels and levers are way out of bounds! My point is not to talk about the politics of the Wilderness Act (although it’s quite poetic and worth reading). My point is that in these areas, an entirely different way of being exists.
Actually, it’s not different. Quite the opposite, it’s the most ancient way of being; it’s an organic way of being. I don’t mean “organic” like the label on food. I mean “organic” like the process of a seed becoming a plant or the fall turning into winter. I believe this way of being is fundamentally different than a mechanical way of being.
Of course, there is no strict separation of the two. Is a wing a machine? What about tools? Am I talking some Daniel Quinn, glorified hunter-gatherer philosophy? No. I’m not a Luddite. I love technology and am on board with Kevin Kelly when he talks about how technology itself is very organic. He even goes so far as to name it the seventh kingdom of life!
I don’t think a mechanical way of being is “bad,” but I do think that parts of it are at odds with an organic way of being and that we run into trouble when we treat organic things as though they’re machines.
Machines are about control, efficiency, power. These are great values. But anyone who has a garden will tell you pretty quickly that control and efficiency are lost causes. And power, well how do you compare the power to move heavy things long distances to the power that can turn a seed into a tomato? Like predicting the weather, there are too many variables to guarantee a perfect tomato. You can get pretty damn close, but you are never completely in control. But if we treat that plant like a machine, then it becomes about either eliminating variables (pesticide) or controlling them (fertilizers, greenhouses…). I’m not against greenhouses, but quite frankly winter tomatoes suck.
A tomato is not a machine. When we try to control it as though it is, we devastate landscapes, poison our and produce shitty food. That’s my environmental soapbox and I’ll get off it now, cause there’s a different soapbox I wish to stand on.
We are not machines.
Wendell Berry gave a lecture in Cambridge last fall where he said we are trying to turn our hearts into machines. We must maintain our organic consciousness, nurture it daily with natural processes and remember that we are creatures, we have organic hearts.
We are an ecosystem. Machines are not unlike ecosystems: both have intricately related parts, all necessary for the whole. But in a machine you can replace a part. An ecosystem is an intricate web where you pluck one strand and the whole thing shudders. No part within a machine has autonomy. Each part of an ecosystem has some degree of agency. A part of a machine is only as valuable as its usefulness to the whole. Do individuals in an ecosystem have value? Machines are efficient and powerful, but they aren’t adaptable. Machines have a distinct function. Do ecosystems? Do we?
Think about traffic jams. Everyone has put themselves in giant, fast machines on a concrete grid interacting with other machines. Once you get into the machine, you adopt the machine’s value of efficiency. So when the machine jams up, what does everyone do? Get pissed. Compassion and empathy aren’t machine values. It’s only once we get out of the machine that we feel bad about yelling at that old lady.
Think about our school system. Are we creating adaptable, creative, compassionate beings or are we creating useful parts? Think about our fluorescent cubes with conditioned air. Think about the glowing rectangle in front of you right now.
I believe we adopt the values of the environment we inhabit. Either consciously or unconsciously, the values of our community push on us. Consciousness is mysterious but is intimately related to values and valuing. I would even go so far as to say valuing is one of the first acts of consciousness. So I don’t think it’s a reach to say that we inhabit different states of consciousness and being when we live immersed in machines.
Again, I don’t think machines are bad. I lived in the woods of Montana for three summers and can wax eloquent about the glories that are refrigeration, computers, and bicycles with their many wonderful gears. Of course the middle path between a machine consciousness and an organic consciousness is the most free. I don’t always know what that path is.
But I do know that when I treat another person as a part of a machine, it prohibits any genuine relationship. When I treat my mind and my body as machines, I don’t heal or grow as well. When I envision my community as a machine it seems bleak and I get bitter. When I’m in the sunshine, eating a summertime tomato, thinking about the wild, vibrant, chaotic movements of nature, well that’s when I’m the most happy.
July 9, 2012 § 8 Comments
Guest Post By Philip Conner
As with all of Jonathan’s blog posts, I thoroughly enjoy reading his work and engaging it. In that light, I believe that Jonathan stopped a bit short of something constructive in ending with Gandhi’s “If I had to choose between truth and god, I’d choose truth.” To combine this proposition with Jonathan’s assertion that all conceptualizations of god are constructed is to work towards a construction of god based on truth, rather than truth based on a construction of god. What I hope to do is set out my constructive view of god in search of some of my truth.
Before going any further, I should briefly introduce my purpose. I am not arguing for an absolute truth in my construction of God. All I am arguing for is the conscious construction of the sacred based upon some experiential truth. Instead of subconsciously allowing myself to construct a god, I am consciously seeking a concept of god that fits my truth. It is like rethinking a dream to change the dream from a nightmare to a fairy tale in order to get a better night’s sleep. I will begin by explaining my truth as I have come to believe it, and follow that by a construction of God based on my truth. In addition to my own personality and experience, I credit my ideas to a variety of sources, especially the radical empiricism and individualism of William James, the cosmology of Jacob Boehme, the psychological reconstructive theory of Ernest Becker, and the provocative questions of friends and colleagues.
As with all people, what I have come to believe as personal truth is a product of my life experiences. Without burdening my readers with my autobiography, here are the two truths that I have come to believe most assuredly. First, humans are both the ugliest thing on the planet and the most beautiful. All humans have the capacity for ugliness and beauty, both are inherent in people. Secondly, all perception is constructed in one way or another by the perceiver, whether consciously or unconsciously. All of these constructions are different, as they are constructed based upon different experiences and personalities. Therefore, it is most productive to consciously alter our perception of the world in order to see all things as equally capable of benevolence and harm.
From these truths, I have chosen to construct a god out of which all exists, a conceptualization deeply influenced by the concept of the unground in the philosophy of Jacob Boehme. Essentially (there is no essentializing Boehme), the unground is the essence from which all has come forth, including the godhead. The unground contains all the dualities of nature, as it must if it is to be the origin of all things. Anybody who has ever tried to wrap their head around Jacob Boehme will understand my skipping over a discussion of his ideas, but I would feel deceitful if I did not acknowledge the origins of my ideas.
My personal nuance to Boehme’s concept of the unground is to combine the center of all life with the concept of a god. What I am suggesting is that god is the passive beginning of all life, containing both the possibility of good and evil. The capacity for anything that is represented in life is present in god, the origin of the universe. God in this sense is not the “Creator,” as many monotheistic traditions see it; god is simply the nebula from which all has come.
With this construction of god, the only moral judgment that I can make based on god is that I am not inherently different from any other person, a truth that has helped me see the world with much less malevolence towards the world around me. This construction of god also requires me to take responsibility for my treatment of other people; I cannot blame my actions on moral judgments coming from a concept of god. I cannot ostracize people because of who they are; I can only be skeptical of their actions if other people are harmed. While my conceptualization of god is constantly evolving, this is the groundwork for a spiritual worldview aimed at the equal treatment of all people.
Hopefully, my personal example is something Gandhi would have agreed with, god following truth, not vice versa. However, my truth is not universal, and I cannot “presume the rest of the vast field” (William James). In addition, I cannot say for sure that there is not an absolute truth that I have been blind to. As William Blake correctly observes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
is an immense world of delight clos’d by your senses five?”