Reason & Religion

“[Regarding religion], one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and, in general, the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting. Religion is concerned with man’s attitude toward nature at large and with mutual human relationship.” – Albert Einstein

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Photograph by Sarawut Intarob.

Research suggests that religious individuals suppress the brain networks used for analytical reasoning in order to engage the network for empathetic thinking. On the other hand, non-religious individuals tend to suppress their empathetic thinking for analytical reasoning. Nevertheless, both reason and religion are essential for the survival and flourishing of our species. Here’s why.

A great majority of the world identifies with a faith that upholds kindness and generosity. And for everyone else, these moral virtues are certainly worth respecting. Yet we see corruption, suffering, and perversities of every kind. And with such apparent depravity in our nature, many have given up hope, or reserved their ideal of perfection for some heavenly notion. But if humanity is to survive on planet Earth, then the harmony we seek in afterlife must be realized in this life. We need a movement that “makes practical use of the compassion and altruism potentiated by every major faith… But unlike other spiritual awakenings, this one must begin with the rational mind.” (Scientists & Sociopaths)

“I believe, indeed, that overemphasis on the purely intellectual attitude has led directly to the impairment of ethical values. Without ethical culture, there is no salvation for humanity… “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” – Albert Einstein

So far, my philosophy has emphasized a fundamental belonging to nature—this sense of significance is a basic element of many spiritual convictions. However, the most influential beliefs stress not only a connection with creation, but also a connection with humanity. And in nearly every faith, the source of human harmony is a conscious phenomenon that we call love—an alignment of emotions towards one purpose: to exist, together, forever (axiom 3).

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“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
– Jesus Christ    

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“You will never enter paradise until you have faith,
and you will not complete your faith until you love one another.”
– Prophet Muhammad    

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“God is love; it is the only truth I fully accept.”
– Mahatma Gandhi    

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“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them humanity cannot survive.”

– Dalai Lama    

Our greatest moral leaders all recognized one thing: whatever the truth is, it must involve love. If there is any reason to hope in humanity, then it’s our capacity for compassion. And if there’s any sure source of meaning, then it’s found in human connection. Through various beliefs, different cultures have reached the same conclusion: love is why we live, and why we want to live forever. For the prosocial majority, the concept of love implies a mutual survival—a “happily ever after.”

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Major Terri Gurrola reunites with her daughter Gaby. Photograph: Louie Favorite/The Journal of Constitution/AP

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl (1947-1997) recalls the moment when, while a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, he realized that the thought of his beloved wife gave him the will to survive:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…”

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“This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.”
– Jesus Christ   

If I have learned anything from my faith, it is this: there is no phenomenon more powerful than love. Through its effect on the sentient mind, love is the single most potent sustainer of life. Fortunately, human nature allows almost everyone to feel compassion—all we need is a reason to. And as shown by religion, we have come up with some very fantastical reasons. Nonetheless, faith underscores the possibility that human nature, with its capacity for evil, holds an even greater potential for good—that feeling allows us to hate, but to love even more. Maybe we’re inclined towards a harmony that is meant to be. Maybe we’re not inherently broken, but momentarily misaligned.

“A phenomenon like self-transcending love does entitle us to make claims about the human mind. And this particular experience is so well attested and so readily achieved by those who devote themselves to specific [religious] practices or who even take the right drug that there is very little controversy that it exists. Facts of this kind must now be understood in a rational context.” – Sam Harris

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“We have broadened the circle of those we love. [But] if we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. – Carl Sagan

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Micrograph of the neurons from a mouse’s brain. Image source: Carl Schoonover.

Just consider: your mind is the result of 100 billion neurons communicating over 100 trillion synapses. Your body is not a single entity, but trillions upon trillions of molecules that continue your collective being. If such harmony can exist at the chemical level, then perhaps nature—human nature—has allowed for such harmony at the conscious level.

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Cell division in epithelial cells.

At the chemical level, the components of an organism seem bound together by a certain purpose: to continue their collective being. To sustain, in a delicate balance, the trace flows of energy throughout its trillions of compartments. To maintain the flux and gradient of every molecular form across every lipid membrane in its assembly. To recreate, from four nitrogenous bases, the precise passing of electrons by every enzyme from conception to death. What drives such order at the quantum level manifests, at the conscious level, as love—an alignment of emotions towards one purpose: to exist, together, forever. To continue our collective being.

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“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” – Albert Einstein

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Photograph by Anne Dirkse.

“It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos.”  Sam Harris

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“For small creatures such as we,
the vastness is bearable only through love.”
– Carl Sagan     

“If we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself, then we may certainly be a way for the Cosmos to continue itself. Our ability to reason, to feel, and to self-reflect—maybe it’s not some aimless accident. Rather, our existence evolved to know and to value itself, for the purpose of preserving itself.” That is, consciousness is the highest experience of order continuing order. And at the sentient level, this order is driven by love.

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The Orion Nebula (1,500 l.y. away). Image Source: NASA, ESA

“God is love…
We love because
 God first loved us.”
(1 John 4:8,19)

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The Lobster Nebula (8,000 l.y. away)

“God is love;
it is the only truth I fully accept.”
– Mahatma Gandhi    

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The Pillars of Creation (7,000 l.y. away)

“Consciousness is the highest experience of order continuing order. And at the sentient level, this order is driven by love.” Thus, our creation is the manifestation of our Creator’s affection. And now we—the created—have become the Creator. The true realization of this purpose must necessarily motivate a love that extends beyond ourselves and our species to the whole of nature in its beauty. Should we hope to continue our existence, then we must love our existence—its past, its present, and its future.

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“Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds throughout the Solar System and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the Universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will love it no less for its obscurity and fragility. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.” – Carl Sagan

Mankind stands at the edge, caught between a stampede behind and an abyss below. The priest looks to the heavens, and the scientist looks to the stars—both believing that they have found their own hope, but neither aware that they seek the same salvation. The only alternative to extinction is eternity, and the only solution to death is love.

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“If we seek nature, then love can be informed by truth
instead of being based on ignorance or self-deception.”
– Carl Sagan    

Some ideas are inherently powerful because they appeal to our deepest of our spiritual intuitions. And there are three concepts that seem to underlie our most powerful beliefs: (1) Eternity—the mind finds comfort in a form of immortality, be it reincarnation or some heavenly notion. (2) God—there are minds more advanced than ours, eternal entities that we often deem the origins of our existence. (3) Love—our capacity for compassion allows for the transcendent harmony of humanity. And for me, this third concept is what made religion so compelling. When I was a child, prayer and worship often inspired a transcendent love, a feeling of pure euphoria. As evangelist Charles Finney said about his conversion experience, “I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love.” This experience is what brings crowds to the altar and congregations to tears. And now I’ve rediscovered this phenomenon, this captivating sense of connectedness, but this time in a rational context. God, love, and eternity may seem like three different concepts, but in fact they reflect one truth: God is love, and we are God becoming self-aware.

“The phenomenon of self-transcendence is generally sought and interpreted in a religious context, and it is precisely the sort of experience that tends to increase a person’s faith.” − Sam Harris, “Waking Up.”

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The Lobster Nebula (8,000 lights years away).

“If I have learned anything from my faith, it is this: there is no phenomenon more powerful than love. Through its effect on the sentient mind, love is the single most potent sustainer of life.” And my philosophy is meant to inspire a love based not on wishful beliefs, but on a reverence for the beauty of our existence as revealed by modern science, and on a fuller realization of our purpose. If we wish to believe in free will, then we now have a choice. We can embrace our role as Creator, and create an existence more beautiful than the mind can comprehend. Or we can refuse our cosmic calling, and let ourselves fall into the darkness.

“The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe.” – Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

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Image source: Reddit user u/south_of_home.

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending.
You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds?
Lay first the foundation of humility.”
− St. Augustine    

Human culture has tended to encourage an unfounded sense of self-importance. But a practical religion should inspire humility from even the self-perceived greatest. And there is nothing more humbling than seeing a larger picture of how everything might connect to everything else, and realizing that one’s welfare belongs to the welfare of everyone else—that lasting joy comes from the joy of all humanity. Indeed you and I are absolutely nothing, and only with our species can we be something. If you seek greatness, then look up at the stars and let the glory of God show you what it means to be truly relevant. Real significance is about creating a world that is cherished by every descendant of humanity, and being part of an existence that sees eternity. In the cosmic perspective, true greatness arises from humility and kindness—these enable the unity and adaptability that are necessary for our survival. The loss of this foundation is what brings power to corruption and society to ruin.


NEXT:   The Human System   |   CONTENTS   |   ABOUT
IMAGES IN THIS BLOG ARE NOT MY PROPERTY. IF YOU WOULD LIKE ANY IMAGE CREDITED OR REMOVED, OR IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS, COMMENTS, OR CONCERNS, PLEASE leave a reply BELOW OR CONTACT ME AT IFTRUTHEXISTS@GMAIL.COM.

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