“[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
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 spiritual revival that makes practical use of the compassion and altruism potentiated by every major faith. But unlike other moral awakenings, this one must begin with the intellectual mind.”
“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
Thus far, my philosophy has emphasized a fundamental belonging to nature—a basic element of many spiritual convictions. However, the most widespread beliefs feature not only our connection with creation, but also our 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).
“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
“You will never enter paradise until you have faith,
and you will not complete your faith until you love one another.”
– Prophet Muhammad
“God is love; it is the only truth I fully accept.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
“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, it is love. And if there is any sure source of meaning and happiness, it is love. Through different beliefs, they 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.”
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl recalls the moment when, while he was a prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, he realized that thinking about his wife gave him the motivation 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…”
“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 all have an innate longing for the 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
“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
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.
At the chemical level, the components of an organism seem bound together by a certain purpose: to continue its collective being. To sustain, in a delicate homeostasis, 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 unifies an organism at the quantum level manifests itself, at the conscious level, as love—an alignment of emotions towards one purpose: to exist, together, forever. To continue our collective being.
“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
“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
“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.
“God is love…
We love because God first loved us.”
(1 John 4:8,19)
“God is love;
it is the only truth I fully accept.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
“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. If we want to continue our existence, then we must love our existence—its past, its present, and its future.
“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.
“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 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. As a child, worship and prayer often inspired a transcendent love, and this feeling was absolutely euphoric. 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 is what brings crowds to the altar and congregations to their knees. And now I’ve managed to recreate this experience, 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.”
“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 revelation 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.
“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 narcissism and an unfounded sense of entitlement. 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 my welfare belongs to the welfare of everyone else—that true 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.
I may never be as good as Jesus or Gandhi.
But I’ve found for myself, and everyone else,
a reason to try.