So, man created God in his own image; in the image of man, he created Him. That is my recasting of the famous verse from Genesis—a rewording with which many atheists can agree. One such atheist is Azim Shariff, a psychology professor at the University of British Colombia. However, Shariff approaches the concept of God from a psychological perspective and with a different emphasis than most debunkers of God.
Shariff points out that up until about 12,000 years ago, humankind lived in groups of 50 to 150 people. It was possible for one person to know everyone else in the group and to have a clear idea as to everyone’s trustworthiness as the group struggled to survive. However, once the group numbered thousands of people as in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, freeloaders could sneak into the group—people who did not do their part in the cooperative enterprise.
That, according to Shariff, was the likely origin of religion. If an unknown man or woman worshipped the same god or gods, the commonality of worship was a guarantee (not absolute, of course) that the stranger could be trusted. Moreover, the best guarantee came from a punitive deity. If an irreligious act meant destruction in this life and eternal torment in the next, fear could be relied upon to keep the stranger honest.
Shariff has performed experiments which seem to support this notion. For example, he had students perform a math test in which they were given the opportunity to cheat. Once the “cheaters” and “non-cheaters” were identified, their views of God were analyzed. (Everyone in the experiment had previously chosen adjectives to describe “God.”) The more honest subjects had more punitive conceptions of deity and had described their God as “angry” or “vengeful” or some other negative descriptor. The less honest subjects were more likely to think of God as being “kind” or “loving.” Hence, they subconsciously thought they could get by with more dishonesty without upsetting God. This, explains Shariff, is why the largest, most successful religions have emphasized the idea of supernatural punishment.
Shariff also applies evolutionary psychology to religion. As the secular rule of law has become stronger in modern societies, the justice system can set legal guardrails against uncooperative, deceptive behavior. With such systems in place, there’s less of a need for punitive religion; and—in fact—contemporary religions tend to envision a kinder, more loving deity than ancestral forms of those same religions. Naturally, there is a mixture in modern times. Some religious groups still hew to a traditional “fire and brimstone” philosophy while others have evolved toward the merciful end of the spectrum.
Speaking for myself, I agree that humans create their God but only because God has inspired them to that creation. In short, I think it’s possible to agree with Azim Shariff’s basic ideas and still believe in the real existence of God and of a spiritual dimension to life.
For a more detailed exposition of Shariff’s perspective, listen to THIS EPISODE of the Hidden Brain podcast.
~ Richard Russell
Action Against Racism
The periodical Christian Century has published a collection of essays designed to educate white people about racism. I’ve placed a copy online HERE. Unfortunately, these excellent essays are mostly an analysis of systemic racism here in the U.S., not a guide to working for the elimination of racism. Well, unless informing oneself about racism is considered an action. In that respect, Christian Century has done people of faith a definite service. But, as a Christian of the Quaker persuasion, what additional actions might I take?
Certainly, further reading is called for. Right now I intend to read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ll also donate to relevant political action organizations like the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Certainly I’ll “nay say” when acquaintances trot out racial stereotypes. And I’m going to buy a bumper sticker.
Amazon sells a bunch of Black Lives Matter stickers. Putting one on my car will establish that BLM has even penetrated into my little Texas town. And this particular action is not without some risk. When I put a Biden for President sticker on my car, one tire was slashed on two separate occasions. Something of the same sort could happen with Black Lives Matter. Still, it’s not a big risk, and I hope the bumper sticker will move me from inaction to action.
Cancer Round III
Let us go then, you and I,
when the evening is spread out against the sky,
like a patient etherized upon the table. T.S. Eliot
I told a woman at the radiation treatment center
that I had warmed up the table for her.
We cannot have a sheet, blanket, mattress or pad
under us because staff have to eliminate any
variables that will affect the calibration
and positioning of the arms that wheel
over us burning their beneficent invisible
passage through our skin to the cancer.
The hardness of the table and the head rest
and in the case of thyroid, throat and brain
malignancies the plastic helmet they clamp
on our faces, through whose colander
holes we breathe, our shoulders buckled in,
fit us to be cosmonauts within our planetarium,
blue lights screaming through the smallest
of apertures. We swallow just before
the mask is lowered should both nostrils ever
close we can guppy scant air through our mouths.
We clasp the rubber ring across our chests
on the fair ride we were dare deviled into.
We are aligned perfectly for the mortuary.
Retractable as the longest of drawers.
About half way into it swallowing becomes
painful, and I’m told to call the pharmacy never
again do I try to take two pills at once, choker
scar where the second operation was aborted,
fill line on a measuring jar, hoarser than ever.
Powdered fine enough I’ll snort them like cocaine.
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw, John Milton
~ Bob Elmendorf
Gratitude and Anger
I needed to take my daily exercise walk, but the recliner was comfortable and Mozart’s music almost hypnotically soothing. Did I have enough self-control to get up and put on my walking shoes? To strengthen my willpower, I used the latest scientific technique. I began mentally reviewing all the things in life for which I was grateful; and—being religious—I even thanked God for these blessings, which ultimately come from Above. Suddenly, I felt a surge of strength and power. Almost before I knew it, I was walking down Pelton Street toward Fairview Park.
This latest technique is not quite so dramatic in its effect as I’ve described above, but David DeSteno’s research (see also this podcast) does support the general idea that feelings of gratitude reinforce our willpower and help us take future actions toward achieving our goals. In his research, DeSteno had some of his subjects think of something for which they were grateful. Others were instructed to think of something that made them happy. Then everyone was given the choice between receiving $17.00 now or $100.00 in a year.
The grateful subjects were able to better control their impulse to take a present reward. As the experiment progressed, $31.00 was required to get the gratitude people to take the money now. DeSteno explains that the emotion of gratitude is forward-looking. When we feel grateful, we also feel a desire to reciprocate and cooperate in the future. Thus, our willpower is strengthened against instant gratification and can help us wait for future fulfillment. That more robust will may also help us get off the couch and go outside for exercise whether alone or in the company of others.
Various religions, of course, have long taught that gratitude for God’s gifts is a necessity for a happy and fulfilled life. Hannah Whitehall Smith, originally a Quaker, writes, “This way of seeing our Father in everything makes life one long thanksgiving and gives a rest of heart, and, more than that, a gayety of spirit, that is unspeakable.”
My own favorite gratitude Bible verse is St. Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:4-6.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is
at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by
prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your
requests be made known to God; and the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts
and minds through Christ Jesus.
My wish, then, for myself and everyone is for us to frequently “count our blessings” and thereby be strengthened to work for those spiritual goals which we have set for our lives.
But I’m not through. Another emotion—anger—is surprisingly common among Quakers. My own Quaker mentor, now deceased, was full of what I would call righteous anger although sometimes that hostility came out in a wicked sense of humor that might be directed at anyone who “crossed” him. I personally haven’t experienced conflict and anger in a Monthly Meeting, but four or five other people assure me that the phenomenon is quite common. There is, apparently, the existential struggle between some theists and non-theists; but the bitterest arguments seem to be over things like the color to paint a meeting house kitchen or whether to put a rug in a conference room. Sometimes, I hear, there are “titanic” power struggles in a committee, usually between two strong-willed members.
What to do? While one wonders what effect feelings of gratitude might have on Quaker disagreements, one Friend suggests a method of de-escalation that has worked for her. Simply begin silent worship instead of vocally fighting. Worship provides a space for quiet reflection, hopefully with Spirit’s guidance. Her formula is to repeat worship as often as necessary and not allow pointless vocal wrangling to occur. Eventually, she tells me, a resolution to the conflict may emerge from among the participants in the argument.
And now I’m finished with this short disquisition on emotions. May God/Spirit/the Eternal rule our emotional life for the greater good and for—perhaps—the establishment of a “Blessed Community.”
~ Richard Russell
On Earth as it is in Heaven
L.A. depopulated with no water supply, Dallas in a rain forest, Manhattan submerged beneath the ocean, F-5 tornadoes the norm, climate change killing off humans. Activists today often try to push an ecological agenda with horror stories of what uncontrolled greenhouse gases may inflict upon us. But fear is not a particularly good motivator as Eden Grace notes in her book, On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation and in her corresponding Swarthmore Lecture. People often deal with fear by blocking it out of consciousness or consciously denying it. A better technique is to present the unsensationalized truth together with some practical plan of action.
And that action will not, in and of itself, solve a global problem. But, suggests Eden Grace, by so acting, we become co-participants with God in establishing His Kingdom on Earth. We must trust God to bring that Kingdom into existence: not a territorial state, but a state of being under God’s dominion and sovereignty.
Rather than forcing ourselves to herculean efforts that lead to psychological burn-out, we must let ourselves be gently led by God. Eden Grace recalls that when “cave tubing” in Belize with individual lamps switched off, the darkness was absolute and frightening; but, when she relaxed, fear was replaced by trust.
I allowed the power of the water to overwhelm my feeble attempts
at power and control, and I surrendered my will. In this transcendent
state, I floated downstream. I had no ability to perceive time or
distance or orientation or context, but…(the) current of the river
was utterly trustworthy. There was zero risk that it would carry
me into a dead end. I would, inevitably, emerge into the light. All
that was required of me in that moment was to yield to its current.
Of course, God will call some people to heroic action in establishing His Kingdom. One thinks of Martin Luther King as regards the purely human relations of the Kingdom or Greta Thunberg as regards the human-ecological relations. Although most of us will have a humbler part to play, the combined effect of all our efforts will—we trust—lead to the transformation of our world and the realization of God’s Kingdom even if imperfectly. At least—we may hope—the planet will remain habitable by human beings.
And so, I ask, “What should I personally do in the crusade to control climate change? I’ve already disconnected my Roku when not streaming programs. That’ll save a little bit of energy and lessen ever so slightly the production of greenhouse gases. As soon as I finish typing this essay, I’ll call Reliant Energy to choose a 10% solar power option for my electricity contract. Hey, it’ll only cost me $6.00 more per month.
Of course, I could keep my thermostat set at 78 degrees during summer, but I’m uncomfortable at anything above 74 degrees. I’ll compensate with a 66-degree setting during winter. And I’ll read up on climate change and how we can meet the challenge of a warming planet. One important tool advocated by the Friends Committee on National Legislation is some form of “carbon tax.” Although it seems like a fool’s errand, I’ll write to my conservative congressman in support of such a tax. And I’ll make a modest donation to FCNL. Perhaps in future I’ll do more. Right now, at least I’m in the current headed for the light.
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