What is Spirituality?

(About a 9 minute read)

The word “spiritual” annoys some people.

Annoys them like the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to practice her lines by the emotionally dim light of a single candle in her impoverished, but charismatic attic apartment, so that she rushes to the window, furious now as a Trump tweet, and ready to throw her shoes at the cat, but instead in the darkness trips on the lethally upturned edge of her oriental carpet, a gift of her mothers, then falling, falling, falling her head hard on the window ledge, splits open her skull: Death in the night.

Annoys them like that.

Or maybe it really annoys them, if you know what I mean.

Perhaps the reason it annoys them is because the word so often refers to vague, intangible things that are hard to grasp or get a feel for.  Then again, on different tongues, the word means different things.  When you hear someone talk of their spirituality, it can be very frustrating or even impossible to sort out what they might actually mean.

That can be annoying.  Just as annoying as the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to…   Oh, never mind.

So I decided to take a brief look around the net to see what definitions of “spirituality” I could find:

  • A sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, typically involving a search for meaning or purpose in life.
  • The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material things.
  • One’s sense of awe, wonderment, and reverence towards nature or the universe.
  • Self-transcendence achieved through the recognition of one’s connection to the All.
  • One’s freedom from the illusions of the self.
  • The search for meaning, purpose, and direction in life.
  • Our innate drive to evolve, to improve, to learn, to continuously grow, to push our boundaries, reach our full potential.
  • A drive to live a life authentic to one’s truth, cultivate virtues, and expand one’s consciousness.
  • Seeking happiness and peace internally, within oneself.
  • Moving beyond the sense of being a person, an individual, and merging with god.
  • Serving people, uplifting them to make a difference in their lives.
  • Finding the answers to questions like, “Who am I?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What else is there?”

Those dozen definitions came up after a brief search.  One scholarly article I came across stated that an apparently more thorough survey than mine had found “twenty-seven explicit definitions of spirituality that showed little agreement between them”.

The sheer number of explicit definitions might be important in light of the fact that somewhere around 80% or 90% of all intellectual arguments are the equivalent of two people arguing over how far they can “throw a ball” while one of them is thinking of a baseball, the other is thinking of a gala dance, and neither of them is aware they are talking past each other.

By the way, that’s not just my opinion.

Back in pre-internet days, a couple of philosophy professors got curious how many intellectual arguments are actually no more than semantic disputes. Borrowing their methodology from the sciences, they studied the issue and discovered that (as near as I can recall now) the figure was around 80% or 90%.

Given the many definitions of “spirituality” I would not be surprised if any arguments over the nature of it were even more often semantic than those figures.

When I think of all of the above, it sure makes me want to pile on with my own definition of “spirituality”.  After all, if there are at least 27 explicitly different definitions already, and those definitions are likely to cause more idle semantic disputes than all the exclamation points used by the world’s total teenage population within any given year, then why shouldn’t I get in on the fun?

Besides, starting another round of semantic arguments looks to me even more entertaining on the face of it than sitting beneath some poor actresses’ window making cat noises — which is what I usually do for fun.

So here’s what I mean by the word “spirituality”:  A person’s spirituality is the manner and extent to which they deal with their psychological selves.

What do I mean by that?  Hell, why am I asking you, dear reader?   I should be asking myself that question!  Ok, then.  Here’s what I mean by that.  First, by “psychological self”, I mean our “I”, our “ego”, our normal waking consciousness.  Those three terms have somewhat different meanings, but I see the psychological self as a sort of combination of all three concepts.  Looked at as the I,  it is who we think we are.  Looked at as the ego, it is the psychological function that provides us with the sense of self that we can then defend against threats.  Without that sense of self, we would not know what to defend.  And looked at as normal waking consciousness, it is the thought process.

I most recently went into much greater detail as to what I consider to be the psychological self in a post, One Reason We Oppress Ourselves, and there is little reason in repeating myself further here.

The fact that our noble species of super-sized chimpanzees has a psychological self provides us with many benefits, but also with many challenges.  The most notable benefit is, as I just mentioned, that it allows us to identify and respond to certain kinds of threats we might not otherwise be able to identify and respond to.  Again, I go into that in much more detail in my earlier post.  Among the many challenges, on the other hand, are these:

  • Seeing threats where there are none.  Which can easily result in anything from unnecessary touchiness or defensiveness to outright violence.
  • The inherent drive of the psychological self to preserve or maintain the status quo, to stay constant and the same, can lead to a relative inability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior, beliefs, and attitudes to changing circumstances, new information or facts, or different and better perspectives.
  • It’s inherent drive to aggrandize itself (in so far as that is compatible with maintaining stable sense of self) can create or at least inflame all kinds of excesses, such as greed, lust, gluttony, arrogance, and so forth.  That is, it always wants more than it actually needs, so to speak.
  • It’s tendency to be fascinated with itself can lead to self-absorption, self-centeredness, and narcissism.

To my mind, then, our spirituality can be summed up as the manner and extent to which we deal with those (and other) challenges, as well as deal with the benefits of the psychological self.

For example: An old acquaintance of mine, Chuck, once walked in on his wife and his best friend in bed together.  Twenty years later, Chuck still hadn’t gotten beyond it.  He spoke about it in such fresh terms that, for the first two weeks he and I worked together doing light carpentry, I was under the impression that it had all happened sometime within the last six months.  I also discovered that not a day could go by without him making at least one reference to the event.  But far worse, he had generalized from his wife to all women, and was absolutely certain that every woman on earth was either disloyal, or capable of becoming so at the slightest opportunity.  You could not reason with Chuck about it.  These were views and convictions that he clung to as firmly as if his very life depended on his holding them.

Of course, I would not say Chuck’s ego was the sole and only cause of his problems.  It’s possible he suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, but if he did, then it was a peculiarly focused disorder, because Chuck was pretty much normal in every other respect that I was aware of.  On the other hand, Chuck’s problems fit the pattern I’ve come to recognize as behaviors associated with the psychological self.  As I see it, the event and all that surrounded it had become a part of Chuck’s self-identity, his sense of who he was as a person, and hence his willingness to go to extraordinary lengths preserving it.

It is along those same lines that I would describe Chuck’s spirituality.  That is, I would say that his ego was attached to the event in much the same way as some Buddhists would speak of “attachment”.

It seems to me, some people not only have more and stronger attachments than others, but that they also seem to be less skillful at dealing with them than others.  For instance, Chuck’s view of women seemed to thwart him from finding women who would not betray him.  That is, it became, so far as I know, a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Chuck and I worked together on and off for about three years or so.  Most of that time, there was no woman in his life.  But twice, for relatively short periods, he found someone.  Both of his flings ended when he discovered the women were cheating on him.  Perhaps he was just unlucky, but I got the impression he might have seen a woman highly likely to be loyal to him as something of a threat to his self-identity, and then passed them by for women he could “better relate to”.

What made Chuck’s behavior unskillful was that he was working against himself.  On the one hand he would tell me he wanted to “settle down with someone”.  On the other hand he seemed to pick the most unlikely candidates for it.

Einstein once remarked that, “The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” It is not entirely clear from the context in which he made the statement exactly what he meant by “self”, nor what he meant by “liberation”.  But Einstein was at least a little familiar with Buddhism, so his notions of those things might have been informed by Buddhist ideas of them.  I myself am sympathetic to Buddhism, albeit I’m far from considering myself a Buddhist.  Instead, I consider myself God’s gift to women, something no Buddhist would ever do. I do not believe however that many Buddhists would entirely agree with Einstein, for I do not think many Buddhists believe human worth depends on how liberated a person is.  If that’s the case, then I agree with the Buddhists: Chuck’s basic value as a human is equal to my own — as well as to all the world’s other folks.

Liberation from the self might be the spiritual goal of many people, especially, I think, in the East.  Yet for me that personally seems improbable to the point of near impossibility.  Others might obtain it, but I do not suspect I will.  So for me the ideal is to wear my self as lightly as I can.

By that I mean to deal with, as skillfully as I can at any given moment, my psychological self.  Naturally, I do not intend my definition of “spirituality” to replace the other twenty-seven plus definitions on the internet.  I am not arguing that my definition is the defi….

Umm…please excuse me a moment, there’s a cat howling outside my window.

No, wait…that sounds exactly like that annoying actress who lives next door to me.  She’s always doing that!  Making cat noises beneath my window like some pathetic fool idiot or moron.  And only because I started it all last fall.  Damn her!

Before I grab my shoes, I must ask, so how do you personally define “spirituality”?  What does the word mean to you?  Your opinions, observations, notions, wisdom, and generous donations of catnip are most welcomed!

Who First Created the Gods?

Sitting at the bar last night,
I said the poets had created the gods.
But Panda, who quite obviously
Knew nothing about such matters,
Said the philosophers had created them
Hence bringing mankind the blessings
Of meaning in life.

Thus, we reached an impasse
That reduced us to an estranged silence
Of a quarter hour while we sat
Like twin sphinxes staring ahead
And all too aware of each other.

Presently one of us quietly sighed
Which was like a bomb going off.

So we began talking at once,
Our estrangement forgotten, buried
When we spoke over each other to resolve:
‘Twas the Scots who had blessed
Mankind with its meaning
By being first to create
The best single malts!

Late Night Thoughts: Friday, March 17, 2017

I turned 60 a couple months ago. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older has been that I don’t worry as much about my mistakes as I used to when I was younger.

I still make as many — or even more — mistakes as I ever did, but I just don’t worry about them as much. Instead, I let the victims of my mistakes do the worrying, for part of my getting older has been my learning how to properly delegate responsibility.

I recently got involved in a discussion of nudity.  Someone said that nudity was against Christian principles for women.  That is, women should be modest in their apparel.

Then someone else pointed out there wasn’t much that was more modest than nudity.  “Hard to put on airs when you ain’t got nothing else on.”

Do you suppose American women, by and large, have similar handwriting?

At least, it’s my impression that a woman’s handwriting usually resembles other women’s handwriting to a greater degree than a man’s handwriting is apt to resemble other men’s handwriting.  Put differently, it seems more difficult to tell women apart than it seems it is to tell men apart.

If that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

And if it is true of American women, is it true of women elsewhere?

I’ve heard people say we can never know for certain what it feels like to be someone else.  But is that really true? Is it never possible to know for certain what it feels like to be someone else?

Yesterday, I was with my friend Don for a late lunch. Don and I go back a long ways and we know each other pretty well.

At one point during our lunch, he said something that was so profound it went completely over my head and I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he meant.  I felt lost and stupid.

Then I suddenly realized: “Surely, this is what it feels like to be a politician!”

Who am I?

If you ask most of us who we are, we will answer you by naming one or another relationship. We are, for instance, a husband.  Or a golfer.  Or a businessman.  But to say we are a husband, or a golfer, or a businessman, is each case to define our self in terms of the relationship we have to something.

In contrast, we tend not to define our self in terms of what is happening with us at any given moment.  I do not think of myself as someone whose shoulder is itching. Or as someone who happens to be looking at a computer monitor.  Or as someone who is wishing it was dawn.  All of those are transient things — too transient for me to think of them as “me”.

Yet, being a husband, a golfer, or a businessman are also transient.  That is, if you really think about it, you are not simply “a husband”.  You are only sometimes a husband.  Just as your shoulder only sometimes itches.  And it is only a convention of thought that you imagine yourself to always — or continuously — be a husband.

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, p. 229.

While it might be true Nietzsche never wrote what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp insight in itself.

We humans sometimes wish to construct systems of thought — worldviews — that are consistent throughout and encompass everything.  Yet, such “views” are simply beyond us, and might even be logically impossible.

So, perhaps the best we can do is to become Cosmic Dancers.  That is, folks who are capable of looking at things from many angles and perspectives, who are capable of dancing between views, but who do not settle dogmatically on any one point of view.

The mane is thought to keep the neck warm, and possibly to help water run off the neck if the animal cannot obtain shelter from the rain. It also provides some fly protection to the front of the horse, although the tail is usually the first defense against flies.


I’m not buying it.  I find it implausible that manes would evolve because horses with manes had warmer necks, and that their warmer necks proved to be significant to their reproductive success.  There must be some other reason manes evolved.

But what would that be?

I was thinking sexual selection.  That is, I was thinking manes are like the male peacock’s tail.  It provides no survival advantage, but the female peacock’s like it. So the females pick the males with the best tails to mate with.  That’s what I was thinking.

But then I remembered that both male and female horses have manes. So now I’m thinking sexual selection probably isn’t the reason horses evolved manes.

But what is the reason?

For the sake of discussion, let us assume there’s an able god.  By “able”, I mean that god is capable of doing anything that does not violate the rules of logic.  For instance, it can create the universe, but it cannot create a square circle because a square circle is logically impossible.

Next, let us assume that god unconditionally loves all of creation, including each one of us.

Is that scenario logically possible?

Well, I think it is possible. I would not account it very probable. It’s not something I’d bank on.  But possible?  Yes.

Now, let us assume the same two conditions — an able god and that god’s unconditional love — plus a third condition.

The third condition is there exists a hell that is a part of creation and to which people are sent after their death if they disobey the god.

Is the new scenario logically possible?

I do not think so.  Instead,. I think the new scenario involves a logical contradiction and consequently cannot exist.  That is, it cannot be real.  But what is that contradiction?

Well, how can you logically have an able god that loves you unconditionally and also causes you to go to hell if you disobey that god?

So far as I can see, you cannot.  An unconditionally loving god would neither impose a condition upon it’s love ( i.e. if you do not obey me, I will not love you) nor would an unconditionally loving god, if it were able to prevent it, allow it’s beloved to come to harm (i.e. if you do not obey me, I will cause or allow you to go to hell).

But what do you think?  Is it an amusing logic puzzle?  Or have I just had too much caffeine again?

Four Quotes From Voltaire:

Les habiles tyrans ne sont jamais punis.

— Clever tyrants are never punished.

C’est une des superstitions de l’esprit humain d’avoir imaginé que la virginité pouvait être une vertu.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.

We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.


A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed — just beyond the window — a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn’t recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality — outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable.  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she’d chosen.

So, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, “God! Look at that slut!”

Of course, I don’t know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn’t ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl — and that made me feel old.  Old and tired.

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I’d been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem — and I didn’t know that for certain — she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

She was Once a Friend of Mine

I recall tonight how I once would sit in the dark, early hours of the morning outside on the patio of my old apartment, and compose in soft whispers poems to encourage a woman I’d recently met over the internet.

Only a few months before she’d reached out to me with an email introducing herself.  Besides her introduction, the email also contained an account of her troubles, her apologies for possibly bothering me, and the explanation that she had no one else she could talk with.

She’d been raised by an physically abusive father and a facilitating mother, but she had long ago forgiven both her father for his beatings, and her mother for condoning his beatings.  Her troubles weren’t with her past, but with her present.

In her late teens, she had married the first man with whom she’d had sex.  It wasn’t that she loved him, nor that he loved her.  It was just that, the way they’d been raised, they both assumed for religious reasons that they must marry because they’d had sex.  After all, they now were no longer pure enough to marry anyone else.  Fortunately, they could atone for their impurity by marrying.

They decided to become African missionaries, but those plans collapsed when they discovered she was pregnant.  He got a job then as one of the pastors of an Evangelical megachurch.  Eleven years later, when she first emailed me, he had risen to become the senior pastor, second in the church’s hierarchy only to the founder himself.

“If we divorce”, she wrote, “He will lose his job.  He’s not an abusive man, nothing like my father, and he’s good with our children.  But he doesn’t really care for me.  He wants me to be an ideal pastor’s wife, and I am not sure he either knows or cares that I’m not that; that I’m not that person he wants.

“I’m just now discovering who I am.  Is it strange that it’s taken me so long to do that, Paul?

“I have lots of friends, but I’m not close enough with any of them to discuss these things.  They are all members of his congregation and they want me to be the same person that he wants me to be. The person I’m not.”

There was a lot more to her troubles than just those things, of course, but what I appreciated most about her was that she refused to hate her husband, refused to disrespect him, and she still gave him his due — even while recognizing that she was miserable in their marriage, that she felt trapped and oppressed, that her hopes and dreams were bleeding out of her.

For a while, she was uncertain about divorcing him.  In the end, though, she decided it was for the best.  As it happened, I knew someone quite a lot like her, only male and single.  Eventually, I introduced them.  A few years later, the last I knew, they were still together.

The Stolen Star Child.

Once a man took his daughter’s dreams —
You know, the visions she had for herself —

Took them, even before she knew she had them,
And gave to her his cheap, second-hand fists instead.

So she grew up not fully knowing who she was:
A Stolen Star Child, knocked off-course in the universe.

I found her a few years later on, married by then
To a preaching man and his congregation

Who wanted to make her the wife she was not,
But wanted not the wife that she was.

There was even some part of the Stolen Star Child
Who wanted for herself what they wanted for her,

And who would have turned her gold into lead for them,
Before cheerfully taking the next rocket ship down to hell.

Despite it all, I felt her enter into my heart that first midnight
To settle there among my dry twigs with a great flutter of wings.

Still, there was nothing I could really give her
So I went looking for her dreams instead.

And now I spend my hours fueling colored patio lamps;
Hoping they’ll someday light her way back to the stars.

Why are Some Religious Groups Sexually Oppressive?

Planning to have sex on your wedding night?  Not if you’re a member of The Word of Faith Fellowship, a protestant, non-denominational church headed by Pastor Jane Whaley, and located in Spindale, North Carolina.

According to a recent news report, members of the church, even on their wedding night, are permitted no more than a “godly peck on the cheek” before they are required to roll over and go to sleep.  And don’t expect the next night to be any better:  Whaley and the other pastors of the church can take months, even a year, to grant a couple permission to have sex.

When permission is at last granted, it’s still no party: “Love-making is limited to 30 minutes, no foreplay is allowed, the lights must be turned off and only the missionary position is sanctioned.”

Well, at least you get to have kids, right?  Sure you do — just as soon as the church leadership grants you permission.

And that’s just some of the draconian rules.  The Word of Faith Fellowship has others too, and the punishments for disobeying any of them are reported by former members to be severe and include harsh beatings.

Reading about The Word of Faith Fellowship in the news, my mind made the jump from that particular church to religions in general, and I began to wonder why they are so often sexually oppressive?

Of course, that question is far too general.  For one thing, religions are not always sexually oppressive.  Shinto, Taoism, most of the species of Paganism that I’ve come across, traditional Chinese folk religions, and many others are to my admittedly limited knowledge not sexually oppressive.  Even Confucianism, which I believe to oppress women, does not oppress sex itself.

Then again, even in those religions with a reputation of being sexually oppressive, there are widely varying degrees of it depending on the branch, sect, denomination, or the congregation one looks at.  So making generalizations is a bit hazardous.  Perhaps the best we can say is that some religious groups are in various ways, and to various extents, oppressive.

That is enough, however, to prompt the question of “Why?”

At first, I thought that was a fairly easy question.  After all, doesn’t the leadership benefit from sexual oppression by using it to further and consolidate their control over people?  But how exactly does that work?

In one way, it’s easy enough to see how it works.  All you need do is watch Pat Robinson (1) rile people up about “the threat to Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness” posed by some one or another sexual issue — abortion, transgendered people using the “wrong” public restroom, etc — and then (2) solicit monetary donations from his now frightened and angry audience.

The more I think about that, however, the more I suspect there might be something deeper afoot.   What Robinson and so many other religious leaders do does indeed work, but why?

Put differently, what is it about human sexuality that makes it easy for so many of us to believe it can, in some ways, pose a genuine threat to “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”?   To my ear, saying there is something about our sexuality that can make it a threat to those things is like saying there’s something about popcorn that can make it a threat to those things.  I don’t get frightened and angry.  I smile and shake my head.

But apparently to a certain kind of person it does make sense to say that human sexuality can threaten those things.   He or she is not only quite willing to get out their checkbook or credit card and sacrifice a portion of their wealth to oppose what they imagine to be the evils of our sexuality, but they are also willing to seek out and follow — often enough blindly follow — any leader who sees things as they do.

It’s all too easy and misleading to dismiss such people as “stupid”.  I have known many such people in my life, and enough of them are smart to give the lie to that dismissal.  So what is it about them that makes it plausible to them that our sexuality can topple worlds?

I think a possible answer to our question might be found in Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, and its gist is that we humans are born equipped with at least six psychological foundations for making moral judgments.  These foundations can be to some extent thought of as spontaneous moral feelings, or quick moral intuitions.

For instance, how would it make you feel to witness a friend being cheated at cards by an out-of-town professional gambler? Moral Foundations Theory would suggest that the fact witnessing someone being cheated might cause a negative reaction in you is the product of an inherent psychological module.  Furthermore, the fact that you might be even more outraged because the person being cheated was your friend is also the product of an inherent psychological module, a second one.  All together, there are six modules, and they are the foundations of our moral judgments, or moralities.

Of the six foundations, one is of particular importance here.  That’s the foundation referred to as “sanctity” or “purity”.   It comes into play when you judge something, such as a food, idea, or action, to be disgusting or abhorrent, perhaps because it is impure or degraded in your eyes.

Now I would suggest that our natural tendency to sometimes make moral judgments based on whether we perceive something to lack sanctity or purity can under certain conditions predispose us to seeing human sexuality as a grave moral threat.  Those conditions are met if we have been taught to view sex as shameful, impure, degrading, and so forth.  And if and when we see human sexuality as a grave moral threat, then it can become plausible to us that human sexuality — or at least the wrong kind of human sexuality — can lead to the downfall of “Christianity, Western Civilization, and Godliness”.

Put differently, it is not simply that someone is taught “the wrong kind of sexuality can destroy religion, etc.”  There’s more to it than that.  Everyone of us has heard that message through-out our lives, but most of us find it quite implausible.  Ridiculous even.  Only with some of us does it fall on fertile ground.  And I think the reason for that is that those of us who find the message plausible are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of moral judgments than the rest of us.

Indeed, when Haidt studied whether political progressives and conservatives had differing sensitivities to his six foundations of morality he found precisely that: Conservatives are more sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation than are progressives.

So, why are some religious groups so sexually oppressive?  Well, as I noted before, not all religious groups are.  I would like now to suggest that the sexually oppressive ones are likely to have significantly more people who are especially sensitive to the sanctity or purity foundation of our moral judgments than are the less oppressive groups.

Yet, I do not wish to give the impression that I think I’ve hit upon the only reason some religious groups are sexually oppressive.  I think there’s more to it than what I’ve written about here.  What’s your opinion?  Why is it that some religious groups are sexually oppressive?  Your thoughts, please.

The Limits of Being True to Yourself

Like most Americans, I devote far too much time to thinking I’m a grizzly.

Grizzlies are a solitary species who can survive by themselves without the aide of any other grizzlies, and — as the world knows — most Americans believe themselves to be rugged individualists who can survive alone without the aide of any other Americans, excepting only the 90% of their lives when they can’t.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I was born resenting authority, social pressures to conform, the powers of both the government and the uber-wealthy, and leash laws for dogs.  I have only grudgingly come to an understanding in middle age of the legitimacy of many of the claims society makes on us.  But I still rebelliously ask, “Why must it be this way?”

Of course, the short answer to that question is: Human nature.  Some pretty conclusive science shows that our brains are to an extent hardwired to deal with living in groups, and there is even a theory now that the very size of our brains is an evolutionary result of social living.  Annoying as it might be to us wannabe grizzlies, the evidence is substantial that we are a social species.

Yet, the recognition that we are a social animal can be taken too far, for we are not even close to being as social as some species.  Mole rats and honeybees are both far more social than us.  No, humans are more like an improbable mix of social and solitary animal.  That mix is the root of much conflict.

History shows a perennial tension between the rights or claims of society and the rights or claims of the individual.  Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.  During most of that time we lived in relatively small, more or less egalitarian groups of hunter/gathers.  Those groups left no historical records, but from what might be known of them by studying the last very few hunting/gathering groups left on earth, they not only tended to be egalitarian, but they also leaned towards individualism.  There wasn’t much difference in power or authority between people.  Everyone had a voice in group decisions.  And even leaders could not typically compel people to follow them, but usually had to persuade them  to do so.

All of that began to change about 5,500 years ago when the first complex, hierarchical societies were invented in what is today Southeastern Iraq.  Now you have distinct, hereditary ranks in society: Royalty, nobles, commoners.  And you also have the invention of alarming, new ideologies justifying the ranks.  These ideologies almost always take the form of “The social order was created by the gods, and the gods want us to stick with it”.  In general, these complex, hierarchical societies have tended throughout history to lean unpleasantly towards the social conformity side of human nature.   Which is a mild way of putting the fact that, for the most part, they have trod very heavily on individual human rights.

Of course, the rights of the individual are crucially important to anyone concerned with being true to his or herself.  The tragedy has been not merely that complex, hierarchical societies have trod heavily on human rights, but that they have for the most part done so unnecessarily.   For instance, in many times and places, cheerfully suggesting that the ruler was an imbecile could easily get you murdered by the government.  And it still can in some places.  But today we have many examples of societies that somehow manage to endure and even thrive despite the fact nearly everyone in them is absolutely convinced their rulers are imbeciles.  Criminalizing such things, and murdering the people who indulge in them, is not only immoral, but unnecessary to protecting the social order as well.  Yet overall, doing so has been largely the norm for complex, hierarchical societies.

So are there any limits to being true to yourself that your society can legitimately impose on you?

Well, I think there are two general areas in which your society has a right to impose limits on your being true to yourself.  First I think it has a right to require you to be socially responsible even if that means you can’t always be true to yourself.

By “socially responsible” I mean that your society has a right to obligate you to (1) respect the rights of others, and (2) to cooperate in promoting the general welfare.  Basically, that means (1) that you cannot abridge someone’s rights merely because you would be true to yourself to do so, and (2) you cannot dodge your obligation to help in promoting the general welfare merely in order to be true to yourself.

To give examples: Your society can demand that you do not steal from someone, and thus deprive them of their property rights, even though stealing from them would be a case of your being true to yourself.  Furthermore, your society can demand that you pay taxes to support public schools, since public education promotes the general welfare, even though paying taxes might in some cases deprive you of money you could otherwise use to more fully express yourself.

Second, I think your society also has a right to require you in some circumstances to be environmentally responsible even though that might mean you cannot always be true to yourself.

By “environmentally responsible”, I mean your society has a limited right to obligate you to help create or preserve a livable environment not just for yourself and other humans, but for other species as well.  I say “in some circumstances” because I can imagine how giving your society an unlimited right to compel you to help create or preserve a livable environment could easily result in tyrannous acts.  “By the way, your government has decided to demolish your house and return your land to its natural state.  Please vacate by Saturday.”

So, to my thinking, those are the two general ways that society can legitimately limit our right to be true to ourselves.  Of course, it is endlessly debatable how they should be applied in practice.  But then, what isn’t endlessly debatable these days?

Every society has an image (and most often more than just one image) of what is an ideal human.   In all too many complex, hierarchical societies the ideal for the elites has been notably different from the ideal for the commoners.  The elites are encouraged to be true to themselves; the commoners are encouraged to suppress themselves in the interests of maintaining the social order.

At times in ancient Greece, the ideal for an adult male elite was to become a socially responsible individual.  That is, he was expected to fulfill certain obligations to his polis, or city-state, and also to develop himself as an individual in order to live a full and happy life.  Today it seems possible to build on that ideal by expanding it to include everyone — man or woman, elite or not elite — and adding to it an obligation to not only be socially responsible, but also environmentally responsible.  The tragedy is, as always, that governors, the uber-rich (who often own the governors), and other elites too often oppose the realization of such ideals for selfish reasons.  Hence, a perennial theme of human history has been — and perhaps always will be — the tension between the individual and society.

What is Philosophy?

Like most normal people, I have my days when I bounce out of bed in the morning enthusiastically eager to discuss the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy.  If today happens to be one of those days for you, you’re in great good luck because the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy are by chance the very topics of this exquisite blog post.  How happy you must be now!

A few months ago, I was discussing the origins of philosophy with someone, and they insisted that philosophy dates back some 4,000 or more years to a certain Egyptian whose name I have sadly forgotten now, but who wrote a book of wisdom literature.

They were quite sure that particular gentleman had created philosophy because they had read about it on the internet.  Of course I have nothing against ancient Egyptian wisdom literature.  (“Dost thou not spit upon the Pharaoh’s face, my son, unless his beard be upon fire”.)  But in my view of things, wisdom literature — no matter how good and wise it is — is not necessarily philosophy.   In fact, most wisdom literature even today has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all.  Absolutely nothing!

Unless.  Unless we are defining “philosophy” the way many of us commonly do define it.   For many of us, the word “philosophy” is almost synonymous with the word “opinion”,  and especially an opinion that might be seen as wise. “My philosophy about people is that if you treat them with the respect and decency they deserve as humans,  then it’s far easier to snooker them into giving you the money you wish to cull from them.”   I call this kind of philosophy “street philosophy” or, when I’m trying to be fancy-pants about it, “informal philosophy”.

Street, or informal, philosophy should not be confused with academic, or formal, philosophy.  The latter is philosophy as practiced by such great and polished minds as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Sunstone, and  a host of others.  I’ll have more to say about the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy later.  For now, it is sufficient for us to recognize that formal philosophy is quite distinct from mere opinion, no matter how wise that opinion might be.

The origin of formal philosophy is traditionally assigned to one man, Thales, a Greek who once lived in what is now Turkey.  About 2,500 years ago, Thales somehow came up with the-radical-for-its-time-notion that natural events — such as thunder,  an eclipse of the sun, or a good harvest — can always be explained in terms of natural causes discernible to human reason.

Put a bit differently, Thales insisted that whatever happens in nature has, not a divine or supernatural cause (or at the very least, not just a divine or supernatural cause), but a natural cause.  Then he went a step further to also insist that we can figure out what that natural cause is via our ability to reason about things.  So, for instance, instead of simply supposing that thunder is caused by a god, we can sit down, reason about it, and perhaps figure out what is the natural cause for thunder.

This was an entirely radical new idea. You can read one ancient text after the other, and no one else anywhere in the world before Thales is trying to explain all nature events in terms of natural causes discernible to reason.  Not in pre-Thales Sumerian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Egyptian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Indian writings.  And not in pre-Thales Chinese writings.  Instead, everywhere it is commonplace to assume that natural events can and do have supernatural causes, unless some natural cause of them is quite obvious.

That is, while you might be aware even before Thales that the arrow you shot through the heart of a deer caused the deer to die — because the cause of the deer’s death is immediately apparent to you — you would not before Thales assume that any and all natural events have natural causes.  If the natural cause of a natural event was not immediately apparent to you, you would most likely guess that the cause of the natural event was something supernatural, or at least mythical.

Even more importantly, before Thales, people did not assume that the natural causes of any and all natural events could be figured out via reason.

As Thales’ influence began to spread outward from his home in Asia Minor, people began to increasingly demand rational explanations for how natural processes made things happen.  And, eventually, this mode or way of thinking about things not only got philosophy off to its start, but also in the end gave rise to the sciences.

So, formal philosophy got started about 2500 years ago with one man, Thales, who somehow came up with the radical notion that natural events have natural causes, and that human reason can discern those causes.  Isn’t it exciting to know that?  I’m excited; I hope you’re excited!

Are you excited yet?

To go on: Reason, as you might suppose by now, is the core of formal philosophy.  Or, to be a bit more precise, the core is logical reasoning.

Academic or formal philosophy, then, differs from street or informal philosophy primarily in what constitutes good grounds or good reasons for holding an opinion.  In street philosophy, just about anything goes.  Sometimes, the only criteria for accepting something is that it emotionally feels right to you, or that it makes you feel good.  So, if someone says to you, “The meaning of life is to find your gift”, you say, “Yeah, that’s right” or “Yeah, that’s true”, if the statement feels right to you, or if it makes you feel good to believe that it’s true.

Formal philosophy is very different from that.  It crucially depends on logical reasoning, and — at least, ideally — rejects any notions that can be demonstrated to be irrational.  It is like a game with only one crucial rule:  You can claim pretty much whatever you want to claim as true, but you have got to back up your claim with logical reasoning.  If you do that, then you score.

Of course, if you fail to do it, then your opponents (other philosophers for the most part), who are always on the lookout for flaws in your reasoning, will gleefully reduce your arguments to finely chopped tears-inducing pieces of onion, which they will then saute on high heat before your very own watery eyes — all the while using logical reasoning of their own to accomplish the cookery, and probably cackling to themselves while they do it.  But that’s the game of philosophy.  It’s one crucial rule is that you must back up your truth claims with logical reasoning, the more rigorous, the better.

Now, to be reasonably cautious, that’s a little bit over simplified, but I nevertheless do believe it to be largely true.

Of course, Good Old Thales was wrong about one thing. He believed that reason alone was sufficient to discern the natural causes of events.  And that was the popular opinion for quite a few centuries after him.  But, as we now know, reason alone is not sufficient.

About 500 years ago, Galileo demonstrated by making several discoveries about the natural causes of various things, that logical reasoning requires a partner: Empirical evidence, or observation.  Alone, both reason and observation are each inadequate to reliably discern the natural causes of natural events.  But woven together, they become that powerhouse of knowledge that we know today as the sciences.

It is commonplace to point out that “philosophy never solves anything”, and in a way, there’s truth to that.  Philosophy has a traditional set of problems or issues, such as “Does god exist?”,   “What do we know and how do we know it?”,  “On what ethical principles, if any, can we base our morals?”, and so forth.  And it is true those problems have been discussed by philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without the philosophers for the most part coming to any ultimate agreements.

Yet, even though philosophy seldom arrives at any ultimate agreements (e.g. “God does indeed exist.”) it often arrives at agreements about what is a rational or an irrational approach to a problem or issue.  For instance, philosophers long, long ago agreed that “I simply feel there must be a god because if there is not,  my life will be without meaning” is not a rational basis for believing there actually is a god.  There might still be rational grounds for believing there’s a god, but everyone now agrees that is not one of them

But, if philosophy is not useful to reliably discern the natural causes of events, then of what good or use is it?  There are a small handful of answers to that question, but perhaps one of the simplest ones is this: Philosophy has worked reasonably well — or even quite well — as a means to asking the right questions.

The crucial importance of asking the right questions was pointed out by Einstein, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

Indeed, when Thales insisted all those many years ago that natural events have natural causes discernible to reason, he was in a very effective sense changing the question of what causes things to happen, and in doing so, he  eventually (and fruitfully) opened the door to the scientific investigation of nature.  It is in fact possible to view the whole 2500 year history of philosophy as a dialog conducted over the ages — a dialog whose main benefit to us has been the discovery of the right or most fruitful questions to ask.

There are a few other uses of philosophy, but that seems to me one of the most important.  I hope this essay will be of some use to you in furthering your understanding of philosophy.  If it happens to be so, I should like to point out that grateful donations of cash can be made to me by calling 1-800-SunstonesScam.  On the other hand, if it has not been of any use to you, I should as readily like to point out that I am personally just as surprised as you are about that, and that I have a very strong suspicion some god wrote the whole thing while I was sleeping, and then signed my name to it.