The purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples, but to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and love – The Dalai Lama
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. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security– Albert Einstein (added emphasis mine)
In a recent post, I reviewed the science behind strict materialism and the alternative hypothesis that consciousness is somehow fundamental to the universe. I don’t think we have the evidence to conclude which of these is correct, but I think it’s fair to say that either is reasonable as far as we currently know. So, in my opinion, belief in materialism is reasonable, as is belief in something like the Perennial Philosophy, which underlies all the major religions.
Clearly, even if it turns out some sort of universal consciousness does exist, that does not mean that the surface beliefs of the world’s religions are true. They can’t be, as they are often conflicting despite their followers believing theirs is the only “true” faith. This, and the fact that a good deal of harm like religious wars, inquisitions, and intolerance has come from some religious beliefs, has led some people to argue that mankind would be better off without any such beliefs. If you take that to the extreme of not wanting to consider belief in anything transcendental, I think you are throwing a baby out with the bathwater. Harm can also come from beliefs other than religion, as illustrated by the recent attack on the Ukraine. On the other hand, religious believers will accuse secularists of having no basis for morality. I think this is an extreme view also. Morality can come from what provides meaning to our lives, as is claimed in secular humanism.
I view the question of which beliefs are helpful in the spirit of the two quotes above: What type of beliefs make us strive to rise above negative instinctual tendencies and cultivate our higher natures? And which ones encourage us to “widen our circle of compassion”? In my opinion, human beings have the capacity for self-transformation, so that we can live more in line with our highest ideals, and this is the way to achieve genuine happiness, so any beliefs that motivate us to do this are helpful. A key component of self-transformation is ethical behavior (for example, following the Golden Rule rather than just “looking out for number one”).
Evolutionary biologists theorize that since we survived in hunter-gatherer bands, instinctively our “circle of compassion” was to our own band (“us”) while not to members of competing bands (“them”). Unfortunately, this tendency to separate our fellow beings into “us” and “them” stays with us, only now it may be on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack of), race, gender, etc. Any belief that allows us to overcome this tendency to separate us and motivates us to unite is helpful, in my opinion, while beliefs that separate us, are not. An example of a religious belief that separates and is therefore not helpful is “ours is the only true faith”.
An example of a non-religious belief that is not helpful is taking materialism to the drastic end-point of nihilism: The universe arose from a random meaningless process, and human beings do not have free will so our lives are meaningless. This leaves us with no basis for ethical behavior. But it is not a necessary corollary to materialism, in my opinion. Even if the universe evolved in a meaningless way, our lives can still be meaningful if we have free will. According to secular humanism “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives”.
I believe that while human beings often go through life “on autopilot”, as if we had no free will, we do indeed have free will if we put our minds to it. Accepting this, that we also have the capacity to change, and that this is the true path to happiness, is the minimum required belief to motivate us to do the work for self-transformation. That will be the subject of my next amateur philosophy post.