Birthday Reflections

22 January is my birthday – one of the ones ending in a zero that signify a temporal milestone. This morning I headed off to Mountain High Pies for an indulgent breakfast of a Big Breakfast Pie and coffee, which I brought to the Black Mother Gully. As I arrived, a red Subaru, which is often here, pulled out in perfect time for me to drive right to my (and their) favourite spot. Perfect timing. 

There were 2 men standing not too far away talking, unmoving, backs to car. This was the first time that loose humans had lingered. They depart as I eat. I am left with magpies and frogs in the background. 

The grass is dressed in the residue of overnight rain and fog embraces the gully. It is a cool 12 degrees C.  All is peaceful. 

I have been listening to The Righteous Mind by the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has been talking the biological and evolutionary foundations to our sense of right and wrong – and why we embrace some as ‘like us’ and others not so much. 

In the background there is the soft sound of chooks – as if offering sad condolences and farewells to their eggs. It’s always such a warm sound.

Haidt is focusing on human morality, and he sends a clear message – who we care for depends on who we embrace as ‘one of us’. The root of our instincts is tribal – in human terms. But it is also apparent that our ancestors shared fellow feeling with other lives – kinship beyond the physical with the many lives of the world they lived with in. 

Haidt’s insights are of immense value, but they are not absolute. He relies of science to make the very good case that there are instinctual behaviours that form part of our moral intelligence – it’s just not all there is. 

Who we choose to believe we are adds a dimension to our moral values, and our conduct. If we see ourselves as special creations of God, given dominion over the creatures of the Earth, we will frame a morality to interpret that. If we see ourselves as part of a community of lives united in the spirit of ‘we are all in this together’ we will frame a different ethos.

How we define who we are will determine how we define our relations with, and conduct towards, others.  Haidt observes that, in biological terms, we cannot progress beyond tribalistic senses of identity and care. We are group based, not species based in our care and concern. 

So, to be humanitarian is to access a sense of identity beyond the biological – to connect with our deep nature that transcends our biological being – a spiritual dimension perhaps. Haidt cannot go there. 

For me, it is the fusion of these two natures – the biological and the spiritual that generates a challenge of conduct and communication – bringing both together. There is a tension between them, when the aspirations of one push against the limits of the other. 

Toward the end of the book Haidt discusses the errors of reasoning in the New Atheist position. The presumption that religion is an irrational thing because it has been used badly is sloppy. It is not a primitive state of pre-rational error. 

Haidt, an atheist himself, raises the human capacity to see faces in clouds – pareidolia. This popularly asserted to be a kind of survival instinct – better overreacting to a mistaken perception that something is a bear than failing to react to an actual bear. This has been crafted into an argument that belief in gods is a mistaken interpretation of that reflex. 

This is so monstrously silly I can hardly take it seriously. There is a lot of sense talked about pareidolia. Awareness of agents in the world is fundamental to all creatures to the best of their ability, and false positives are common – either as initial reflexes or as actual errors. Cats will chase a light from a laser pointer as if it is a living thing.

But assuming that humans who, at one stage, had to be hyperalert to things to eat, and things that may eat them, will parlay the false positives into an enduring delusion is offensive nonsense. Nevertheless, there is a book called Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie, 1995, which seems to have gained and retained a wholly unmerited fame.

As a child I was terrified by a face in the clouds. I thought it was God. I was 4 at the time, and my father had been drilling into me the assertion that God was watching me. I was playing in outside, chanced to look at the sky, saw the awful face, and fled in doors to find my mother. I love watching clouds. These days I take photos of cloud formations in the Blue Mountains. Faces are rare, and not enough to build an erroneous beliefs system on. The idea that our ancestors saw a face in a cloud and mistook it for an actual being is idiotic. Even the best faces don’t look literally convincing – though I must allow the odd one might.

I saw a photo of a potato crisp that was supposed to look like Jesus. It didn’t of course. It just looked vaguely human shaped. You need to indulgently apply your imagination to agree it looked like Jesus, or Elvis.

Seeing lifeforms in nature is what you’d expect from people with acutely developed capacities to scan their environment. You look for almost, because not every form will be clearly defined. So false positives are always going to be high – at least on first encounter. For example, when looking for edible shellfish on a beach, you mostly see just hints – a mere suggestive line from a small section of the shell that is exposed – and more things look like that suggestive line that are not shells because lots of things look like lines. The ability to see that even vaguely looks like something you are looking for is critical if you want to get a feed. 

It is not rational to turn a schooled reflex that generates a high volume of false positives into a theory of religion – unless you need to explain away something you don’t want to have to validate.

Perception of spirit presence rarely involves seeing an organic representation. But when one seeks to represent it, the organic is the go-to metaphor. In fact, spirit often expresses through animal form, using actual animals – birds are common. So, awareness of the environment includes awareness of spirit as well as of organic beings – and anything else that might be useful.

I get it – if you don’t believe spirit is real, as Guthrie does not, then you will try to explain human behaviour in terms that exclude spirit. But that’s a conceit, and little more. It is a thinking error – form a conclusion and then develop a theory based on the conclusion. If a lot of people share that conclusion, few people will argue the point – and those who do can be discarded as ‘not like us’.

This is where we have problems with developing a moral philosophy – basing it on a conclusion that suits our conceits, rather than critical thought and evidence. Haidt relies on scientific evidence, which is perfectly fine. There isn’t ‘scientific evidence’ for spirit at this stage. This leads to clunky interpretations of data, reliant upon a belief set – the atheistic materialist model which assumes spirit is not real – as opposed to not proven. That’s a bad habit.

The so-called New Atheists, who condemn religion because it is perceived to be the cause of much ill, are in line for the same criticism. None are students of religion, and neither are they students of psychology. The most famous New Atheist, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist. They have, in my view, misused science in service of a dogmatic goal. In fact, science has been harnessed in the performance of awful things, harming humans and other lives of the planet. Yet nobody, so far as I know, has set up a movement to argue that science is the fruit of a delusion – a thinking error.

Science is, in essence, a methodology. So is religion. Both can be employed to injure, or aid, according to the lights of the practitioners. Haidt demonstrates that positive moral conduct is mostly directed only toward our group – we look after our own – and we may persecute others. Instinctual behavior can carry an overlay of a cultural narrative, including religion. Blaming religion for instinctual behavior is sloppy, self-indulgent, and unscientific.

Haidt, true to his scientific grounding, asserts, in relation to pareidolia, that “People perceive agency where there is none.” Because ‘science’ has not detected agency, the presumption is that it does not exist. The evidence of people asserting the presence of agency is discounted, because such evidence is not considered ‘scientific’. In an atheistic materialistic culture this makes perfect sense. In an animistic culture this is just a fusion of bias, conceit, and intellectual carelessness.


Good science is good science regardless of whether it is dressed in the pomp of conceit and dogma. The materialistic presumption is no different to the theological presumptions that impeded intellectual progress in earlier centuries. No age is free of conceits and bias in the formulations of theories about how reality works.

The fusion of good science and awareness of spirit is essential work. Reliance upon old discourses such as paganism without blending the old insights with new knowledge seems no more than a form of self-indulgence – a sentimental approach to spirit.

There’s a movement called New Animism. I have no affection for it because it seemed to me to be sentimental – animism was useful for what it conveyed about sensitivity, but essence of spirit seemed to be side-stepped – in an effort to make it intellectually respectable. We can get the desired sentiment better from insights into biology – ideas like forests being organisms – a community such as the wood wide web.

Flagrant exposure to spirit is not common for Europeans living in a predominantly urban setting. That’s how it is. The failure of Christianity to develop into an acceptable vehicle for discourse on spirit is a failing of Christianity, not of spirit. Rejection of the Christian God makes sense on rational grounds; but progressing to deny spirit does not follow. The absence a strong motive to ‘discover’ spirit will likely lead to not discovering anything.

The view of the New Atheists seems to be that ‘I am an important and intelligent person, so if the Christian God was real, he’d make himself known to me. I think this conceit overlays the more sensible – ‘As an intelligent person I don’t find anything persuasive about claims this God exists.’ That’s agreeable to me. It’s a position I can share. It’s what happens next that sets me at odds with atheists who claim their position is the universal and only valid one – all else are in error. Where have we heard that before? 

Religion and science are both fingers pointing to the moon. And despite Gould’s assertion, they are the yin and yang of our consciousness and not a mutually exclusive polarity.

Early religion was empirical – a struggle to make sense of an overwhelming sense of dynamic being; and to find a place for the human in it all. Science continues that task as a partner, not a competitor – or it would, absent the scientific and the religious fools. Religion has lost its way, because it has become tangled in the mess of instincts, culture, scientific (and other) ignorance, dogma, and conceits.

The ‘spiritual’ must see beyond the dogmatic follies of sound science and work with it to develop a new discourse. This must be an intentional commitment – to reshape how we understand and talk about spirit.

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