It has been another great month at the Center for Reasoned Spirituality.
Reasoned Ethics, a two-part blog series by Chuck, focuses on ways you can use the Reasoned Spirituality Framework to build or revalidate your moral and ethical foundations, without being encumbered by the dogma of organized religions.
We have also been discussing ways we can employ Reasoned Spirituality during the most challenging times in our lives. This is an important aspect of any worldview, one that we recognize and embrace. Swing by and tell us how you use reason and/or spirituality in challenging times.
How do we become better persons, and how do we evolve as a community? Let us look to nature for answers. There are many facets of human nature we need to consider: our instincts for self-preservation, our natural drive to perpetuate our species, our inclination to live together in cooperative societies, our natural fight or flight reactions, hundreds of normal and natural human traits, some of which are in conflict. Let us examine some of these with respect to ethics and morality.
I believe we can see that moral behavior and cooperative behavior are both adaptive, and there is scientific evidence supporting this position. Using nature as our guide, our Framework can help us during our process of purposeful self-creation.
Traditionally we have thought of evolution as the survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle, creatures competing, tooth and nail, with only the strong surviving. This is not a completely accurate picture. Even if the quote did not actually come from Darwin, it is probably true that it is not the most intellectual or the strongest that survives; the species that survives is the one that that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. (Megginson)
Species comprised of highly adaptive and competitive individual members will have more survivors in an environment where individuals compete for limited resources. But what species survives when there is conflict and competition between groups? Which individual traits are most adaptive when groups compete against one another? Here we find that the ability and willingness to cooperate, not just compete, are highly adaptive traits. Groups that can coordinate efforts will overcome similar groups comprised of highly competitive individuals who act as an uncoordinated mob. The notion of group selection suggests that families, bands, tribes, villages, cities, states, and nations that cooperate, collaborate, and act as cohesive bodies, are more adaptive and are better survivors than those who are undisciplined and chaotic. (Haidt) Also, uncooperative or anti-social behavior can cause individuals to be shunned or excluded from the group, even if those individuals are strong and intelligent. Being both moral and cooperative can be adaptive.
Humans are naturally social animals. People join together and cooperate for many reasons. Geography throws us together. In hunter-gatherer societies people banded together and learned to hunt and to gather cooperatively. Agricultural operations for large societies require cooperation, as does trade. People may rally around charismatic leader or figure, even a mythical one. We are drawn together by common interests or ideas. But we must also remember that almost any of the ways used to bring people together for positive reasons can be corrupted and turned to negative purposes. We must maintain our power of critical thinking, as well as our moral and ethical individuality, to avoid turning from cooperative groups into uncritical mobs controlled by someone whipping up our passions. It is said that morality is doing what is right, regardless of what you are told, and religion is doing what you are told, regardless of what is right. This is an oversimplification, but clearly surrendering one's individuality and succumbing to groupthink has led to many atrocities in human history.
The Reasoned Spirituality Framework provides the ends, ways, and means for improving both as individuals and as communities. The Framework supports us as we recreate ourselves. Our goals or ends? To seek to understand the fundamental questions of life, to achieve greater connectedness with others and with nature, and to achieve our maximum individual and collective potential. We can better connect with others if we nurture our natural tendencies towards empathy and love. We must see through other eyes and walk in other people's shoes; we must relate to others with compassion. When we seek understanding, compassion, and spirituality, we grow and mature as persons, and we make our own little corner of society better.
We accomplish our ends in three ways: through knowledge, experience, and action. These are the ways of nature. We learn by being taught, we learn by doing, and we put what we have learned into practice. We built our moral foundations on what we were taught as children and what we learn over time how best to interrelate with others, and we learn to act accordingly as moral beings. Later, when we have put away childish things, and we choose to live examined lives, we may find that the foundation we have built is not the foundation that we want. Our Framework is our toolkit for rebuilding our foundation and for achieving our maximum individual potential.
In the C-R-E-A-T-E model we find the means to become more spiritual individuals with more reasonable moral foundations. It is through Connection that we experience love and compassion. We empathize with others and put ourselves in their skins. It is through Reason and Reflection upon what we think and believe that we learn to live examined lives. We reflect on who we are, and we Educate ourselves so that we may discover what kind of persons we want to be and how to reach our goals. We Adapt and Act to effect our transformation, and as we act, we touch the lives of others. And at this point the C-R-E-A-T-E model begins to extend beyond the individual to community. When we have acquired knowledge that can be of value to others, we begin to Teach. We share our knowledge and experience so that others may benefit, and we transform our community. Ultimately, if we follow this path to its ultimate conclusion, we will Exemplify what it means to be a reasoning and spiritual person.
As an exercise in building our own moral principles, consider for a moment how we might improve on the Golden Rule by shortening it to "Be considerate". By urging consideration we suggest that we should not only practice empathy and compassion, we assert that we must be responsible, and we must take the consequences of our actions into account before we act. Compassion and critical thinking then combine to strengthen our moral foundation. Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion is something we all can support. Compassion makes sense, and Reasoned Spirituality is all about making sense. Compassion must be tempered by common sense to provide long-term, lasting solutions that are sustainable and lead to real improvement in the human condition.
Compassion and love and critical thinking about long-term consequences are crucial, and a sense of responsibility will result in a strong moral foundation. We are responsible for building our own system of ethics, no matter what moral code we claim as a basis. We are our own moral authorities, and we always have been. We decide how to behave, irrespective of what we are told is right. We are responsible for our actions. We can't legitimately blame devils or the weakness of the flesh. Whether, in fact, our actions will conform to our professed moral code is something we decide every minute of every day. We choose our courses of action, and we are responsible for the consequences. If we break society's codes, society may punish us. If we break our own moral code, we must deal with our own conscience.
Reasoned spirituality recognizes that our existing moral foundations operate automatically. We consciously think one way, but we may react viscerally in a different way. We rarely take time to weigh or balance or give full conscious consideration to our moral and ethical questions, we just react based on our inner ethical systems. Developing new instinctive reactions based on our new moral systems is not an easy thing to do. It will take time, deliberate effort, and concentration, especially in the early stages of our transformation. Some things we may never unlearn. Like old scars or injuries, they may hamper us at times, and we will have to learn to adapt to these moral infirmities.
Serving a purpose greater than the self helps us transcend the self, and this leads to a spiritual experience. Lincoln, in describing his religious beliefs, said that when he did good, he felt good, and when he did bad, he felt bad. This simple saying holds a lot of wisdom. Service to others makes us feel good. We are thinking beyond the self, and we become better persons as a result. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology and an atheist, finds value in religion for its ability to take people beyond their ordinary lives to something larger than themselves. (Haidt) Religions transform large numbers of unrelated people into a group that is willing to work together and help one another. Many things other than religion can stir us to service, and we believe that spirituality (not organized religion) is one of the better ways to come together in service.
We owe everyone compassion, respect, and justice. Compassion is connection. Respect does not mean agreement; it means that we recognize the rights of others to choose the paths that are best for them. We do not find justice outside of human nature. Recognizing justice, like recognizing right and wrong, requires that someone must judge. Nature is impersonal and does not judge. If there is to be justice in the world, we must provide it. Justice requires judgment. We must rely on someone else's judgment, or we must judge for ourselves. And when we judge, let us temper justice with mercy, with due consideration of the long-term consequences. Every person, even a stranger, deserves compassion, respect, and consideration unless they prove themselves unworthy of our respect. Trust, on the other hand, must be earned; it is not automatically granted.
As we mature and evolve as ethical beings, we must devote much reflection to empathy, love, compassion, respect, freedom, responsibility, consideration, anticipation, mercy, and justice. How these elements interrelate and how we decide are most important in a given situation will determine our moral courses of action, and how we act will be different for each individual and situation. And that is how it should be.
My mom is getting old. She’ll be 80 next year. Up until the last very few years, she always seemed much younger than her age, looked and dressed younger, acted and talked younger, even thought younger. But especially since my dad died two years ago, her age has finally kind of caught up with her, and she seems depressed, overwhelmed she said. For a few months after he died, she had neighbors and relatives calling, she was still going to church, bills and statements were coming in she had to deal with from his 6-week ICU stay, and my youngest daughter was planning her wedding later that year. But then the dust settled and the neighbors weren’t calling, the wedding was over, etc., she had quit going to church, and real life set in and all the day-to-day things came upon her, things that my dad helped her with or did himself, and she was alone a lot of the time. My mom hasn’t driven in years, but he’d drive them out to lunch during the week or the drugstore or nursery. He’d bring in fresh produce from his garden for her to cook, and they worked on home projects together. My mom is one of those women who worked most of her life, came home and cooked supper, spent time with her family, watched a little TV, went to bed, and the next day did it all over again. She never developed a real passion for a hobby like some women around here do, quilting or knitting or sewing or gardening. She used to read a lot, but her eyes are getting real bad, and that’s depressing her, too. She finally agreed to let me make her an appointment with the eye doctor, so we go next week. After that, maybe I’ll tackle a general doctor for a checkup, but my mom has avoided doctors for a very long time. I asked her if she wanted to talk to someone professionally, a counselor; she said right now talking to me was enough.
I’ve been pretty worried about her and she said she really misses my dad. In the last couple of days she and I have talked more in-depth about serious things than we ever have in my life. My dad and I used to talk about religion quite a bit. He had gotten back into church later in life and became very involved. He pushed my mom, too, to go and participate, and now I see that was probably a good thing in a way, to keep her from just sitting too much and thinking and feeling bad about her life. To be honest, she’s always been a bit negative and now that’s having an effect on her. But we got to talking about religion yesterday, sitting in the Wal-Mart parking lot waiting to go in and buy groceries. Then we talked more last night, and again today. She was asking me about what I believed and what I didn’t believe, how did I even know what I believed, about the conflicts she had with what she had been taught and things she knew now, but mostly she kept worrying about whether she would see my dad again, did I believe that. I told her what I believe; I told her about my own struggles with it. I certainly can’t say with certainty that when we die our energy/spirit won’t recognize another’s (I think they'll at least mingle together); I hope that‘s true but I don't know. But no, I don’t think we’ll see each other with human eyes looking all put together in our Sunday suits. My dad’s ashes are in a beautiful jar covered in a design of leaves in my dining room right now; I don’t think they’re going to re-form his physical being But if our energy can and does mingle, and if we on some level can recognize one another’s heart or essence, I don’t think we have to wait until we die, my mom and me, to experience that with my dad, right now. I feel my dad in and around me a lot, when I’m in my yard where he planted some trees and shrubs for me, in their house and yard, in my children, in my love of certain things, in the way I think and reason and speak about things, in my very being, but I’ve learned to see him with my heart and my gut, not my human eyes any more. I wish my mom could open her heart and mind to do that, too. I think she wants to be really literal about it and it’s driving her kind of crazy and, who knows, may be causing her some of her eye problems; maybe she needs to "open her eyes and see" in a different way, so to speak. Whether my dad feels or experiences us as spirit or energy is something I can't say or know.
I think she needs to feel passion for something in her life so she isn’t bored and just moping so much. She seems to be on a spiritual quest, and having struggled myself with that to the point of stressing myself out too much, I want her to find peace and figure out what she believes. It doesn’t have to be what I believe or anyone else either; it doesn’t have to be what she believed when she was little, or it can be. But I truly think that people handle life’s ups and downs and joys and tragedies better when they have an idea of their own worldview, spiritual path, religion, philosophy, or whatever you want to call it. People, including me, find comfort in that. At least part of religion’s purpose, I believe, is to try to make some sense of things that seem incomprehensible or unbearable, including death/loneliness/missing someone so much it hurts. She asked me about heaven and hell and Jesus and so many things; she was almost like a little girl thirsting for knowledge, and all I had to give her was my revelation and thoughts about things, which as Thomas Paine said, are mine alone, and we each have to find our own way, but we can love and support each other on the journey, and that‘s what I want to do and am trying to do, no matter what her path turns out to be that makes her feel alive, that there’s still life to be lived, and that she can feel close to my dad, just in a different way. I think it made her feel better to talk. She has been holding in a lot for a long time. She’s very, very private, and she said she and my dad used to talk about some of these things. It seems like it’s common when people get older and they haven’t been “religious” for a long time that they turn to religion once again. For some people, it seems like a real easy and natural thing to do; for others it’s a struggle.
We had a funeral for my dad but not a burial since he was cremated. I asked her if she was ready to think about fixing a little place in the yard with a bench and a garden stone (I bought one two years ago) and maybe putting some of his ashes there, or maybe not, but a place where we could go sit, put some flowers, and honor and remember my dad especially in that place above all places, and she said yes, she thought so. I think she just is still grieving and because of her privacy, it wasn’t easy to see until some things happened recently that brought it to light, and she's been doing it largely alone. I asked her if she’d like to work on genealogy with me a as project; she perks up when we talk about old days and she tells me about people and places when she was little, and I learn about my grandparents and great-grandparents and she remembers. It seems to give her pleasure. I told her if she wanted to go back to church, I’d certainly take her. She knows people there and there’s a new preacher coming; the very last one they had was real hard to connect with. The one that she really liked that was with my dad a lot during the last 6 weeks of his life had moved away. That was a loss for her, too, and then my daughter had a miscarriage; the baby would have been born next month. There has been a lot of loss in the last two years and it's hard to make sense of it sometimes.
She doesn’t like to burden me with more things. I do what I can to help her several days or evenings a week, but I work full-time so I can’t be there during the day all the time, and I can’t be my dad. But I hope she’ll find a way in her own heart to feel close to him, to feel his presence, and find some sense of peace. Yes, I have a lot to do living alone myself, but right now it’s more important for me to help her and be there than to make sure all the cat hairs are vacuumed off my den floor.
Talking to her clarified some things for me, too, things I've been struggling with myself. Wow, yes, I really do believe in God! I've come full circle back to believing in God, but not the same way I did when I was a child, not as a super-human in the sky who could grant me wishes. I even told her a little about Deism and this community, and yes, I believe I see God in creation, in the trees and stars and creatures, both human and not, in the I am-ness of being, in creativity that's ongoing, in the natural laws of the universe, etc. (essentially Paine's Word of God), but I realized, too, that in my heart of hearts I really do believe that God was that First Cause that began the universe, that expresses as the universe, but is bigger than it is, too, and if somehow the universe as we know it were gone, I think that First Cause, all that energy, will still be there somewhere, in some inexplicable way, to maybe do it again, or maybe not, and we'll be part of it in a whole new light. I've been fighting this for awhile, but talking to her helped me, too. I’m open to the idea of energy and its different forms, and whether we will "recognize" one another after death in some kind of human terms doesn’t even really matter to me, we‘ll still be connected and intertwined eternally on a different level (however long that is!). My mom asked me will we ever know all the answers to these things, and I said no, I don't think we will, but who knows, maybe someday something or someone will have evolved far beyond us that is much closer to understanding God than we are. That’s something I’ve had to come to terms with, too, and have learned to accept, sweet, sweet mystery. We get answers, and then we get more questions, and then maybe new answers, and so it goes. It has been an intense couple of days, and I still worry about my mom, of course, but I feel like I've actually come to peaceful terms within myself.
There is a tree that stands tall in neighbors yard eight houses down from mine, I'd say that it is about 75 feet high. There are taller trees in our area, but they are in parks or the nearby woods. I look at this tree every day and most mornings greet it with the new day. I watch this tree all year long as it changes with the seasons. In the winter, to me, it takes a very much needed restful appearance, kind of like a person who has lived a long and productive life.When a winter storm comes I look to see how well it fairs and hope that it can endure to harshness that the winter can bring on to an elder such as this.
Spring brings new life to this old oak and it's many large limbs offer nesting places for the squirrels and the returning birds. Spring also brings on the heavy rains and I keep an eye out for lightening strikes, if one should hit, the damage to the tree and houses might be significant. It seems to have weathered the storms well in it's long life.
Summer brings on the heat and humidity and it seems to stand as still as it can waiting for the sun to go down and maybe a cool night. It provides enough shade to cover two or three houses at any given point of the day.
In the Fall it really shows it's grand beauty with the many colors of it's changing leaves, they start on the east side and slowly change moving west and it seems to hold on to as many of them as it can till the cold, wind and snow return again.
I watch this tree from my back yard, something about it soothes me, maybe I just respect it because of it's age and beauty. This evening, we seen some rain and the storm front brought with it some mild winds and cooler temps. I watched the many full limbs and branches sway in the evening sky. It felt so comforting and relaxing watching it as one might feel while watching and being memorized by a campfire, somehow I feel connected to the nature of it all.
It is little things like this that make me truly grateful for the life I have
The Center for Reasoned Spirituality is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational foundation and public charity that promotes reason-based spirituality, which balances scientific knowledge with personal experience and intuition. The Center promotes educational and charitable works aimed at reducing ignorance, promoting respect, and advancing the human condition.