Why we need to end the science v religion dichotomy


It is beyond doubt that the great civilisations were religious in some form or another, and this did not impede scientific development. It is also beyond doubt that ideologies and dogmatism impede scientific development, whether they are religious or scientific.

Materialism has a cranky intolerance of religion in general. Its aversion to religious dogma is frequently well-founded but unbalanced and mostly ill-informed. It is at best an ideology driven by unaddressed personal issues. And we also have fundamentalist religious dogmas that are irrationally intolerant of science.

We have extreme aversions. Each camp presumes it is right and the other is wrong. Atheists debate fundamentalist Christians in pointless performances that pander only to their own. They are not debates seeking to resolve an issue. Neither camp has depth knowledge of the other. This is what happens when combative ideologies engage in ritual combat.

Science and religion are essentially fairly modern ideas – especially as contestants. We need to understand this. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on religion quotes Paul Griffiths (a theologian I think) as saying: hardly anyone has any idea what they are talking about—or, perhaps more accurately, that there are so many different ideas in play about what religion is that conversations in which the term figures significantly make the difficulties in communication at the Tower of Babel seem minor and easily dealt with. I recommend reading the full article.

I think it was the American philosopher John Dewey who denied there was Science, only sciences and scientists. We often talk of Science as if it is a settled body of knowledges and beliefs rather than a method of inquiry. But capital ‘s’ Science isn’t really a rational thing. It’s a convention or habit (and a bad one at that). Scientists can be deeply dogmatic and cruel to those with whom they disagree, as well as dishonest.

In essence, while there might be ideals fairly associated with science and religion, they cannot be applied universally. We may have to offer only finely nuanced descriptions of what we intend to convey if we want to avoid being misunderstood. Indeed, maybe we should come up with new ideas and words about both.

A personal position

I grew up with a passion for science and an aversion to the Christianity of my parents. I wasn’t anti-religious, just anti bullshit. By the time I turned 15 I had been hammered by an array of non-ordinary experiences that left me unable to turn to either science or religion for guidance. That’s still pretty much the picture today.

Between the two was a strange zone which offered succour through what is variously ‘pseudo-science’ (a term I detest) or sundry ‘New Age’ beliefs. It was often attractive – if one’s intent was to discover a comforting dogma to indulge in. But the absence of intellectual integrity was always a danger signal to me.

To be clear, I don’t disparage the discovery of a comforting dogma. Sometimes that’s an achievement – if the root of the comfort has integrity. Shelter from the storm of doubt has its appeal. But it’s just not something I am into. I had to resolve my non-ordinary experiences into some kind of theory that satisfies my personal needs.

So, I grew up with a hunger that was not assuaged by the offerings I found, though I drank eagerly from cups offered by both science and religion. However, they were more like hospitality to a pilgrim rather than temptations to dwell. We all have our own path to walk.

I read extensively in the sciences and in religion/spirituality. I was a sci-fi and fantasy devotee for a few decades. I have read only 2 fiction books in the past 25 years. I have been tracking my audiobooks since Dec 2018 and I have been getting through 4.5 a month on average. This doesn’t include podcasts and Kindle. I mention this to emphasise that I am a serious inquirer.

What kicked of my audiobook list keeping in December 2018 was the discovery of Donald Trump’s extraordinary impact on the US. This became a deep fascination for me because it triggered an intense curiosity about the nature of belief. My Trump book category has 59 inhabitants. The largest group is political history – 60. I needed a refresh so I could make sense of Trump’s environment in a non-naïve way. Allied to this need are the 36 social commentary books. My religion/spirituality group also has 59 occupants, including quite a few on American expressions of religion. There are also 12 books on metaphysics and 2 on mythology.

I have had an enduring parallel interest in how workplaces have been evolving. I have a category called professional development with 58 books on organisational psychology, management and diversity, equity, and inclusion. This has been supplemented by 22 books on psychology.

Apart from the 1 fiction book, there is 1 book on writing, 2 on economics, 4 autobiographies, 9 on indigenous culture and history, 11 on ET/UFOs, 15 on science, 16 on philosophy, and finally 16 books on history (including 6 on ‘pseudo history’). 

I have tried to explore the world I live in using contemporary knowledge to discover something of the human drama and how we are responding. Trump represents a profound existential crisis at a cultural level. It’s not just the US – it’s just way better examined and documented there. My professional development and psychology books have explored the individual in social and organisational settings with an emphasis on moral dimensions.

The UFO/ET books have driven home the drama of our opening awareness to other lives and dimensions. This has been reinforced by the books on metaphysics and science. This drama accompanies expressions of religions of course, but it’s a common human heritage that should be as much a part of our shared secular discourse as any other theme.

Trump represents an appeal to tyranny – a purely human effort to resist the evolutionary forces that are transforming our experience of being human. The past 30 years or so in particular have utterly transformed living in ‘advanced western’ countries. I have no doubt this is true for other countries – I just don’t have the lived experience to assert it is so without qualification.

We are change resistant creatures in a maelstrom of transformation. Exhaustion and resistance are normal. It is easier to articulate resistance concretely and harken back to the known than it is to voice confidence in an unpredictable future. Resistance may be futile, but at least it seems comprehensible.

The present as a balance between past and future

The balance is important to me. Reliance on texts from pre-modern agrarian cultures strikes me as crazy. For example, the Bible no doubt aspired to contain the best wisdom and insights of its time of creation, but valid ancient ‘wisdom’ will be validated by modern wisdom – eventually. So many foundational insights of ancient wisdom are affirmed by contemporary human sciences. On the other hand the messy struggles to make sense of new spiritual ideas will not ensure unless they become baked into ideologies demanding compliance and faith rather than reason and discernment.

The mystical nature of Jesus, the core of Christianity as a dogma, cannot be validated. It remains a personal election as an essentially unimportant matter. This unimportance is a profoundly contentious matter for believers. Atheists have gone beyond it, as have those who have adopted alternative paths. The ability to discern between wisdom and dogma is developed only through discernment and struggle.

There’s much our sciences won’t explore or validate, but what they have is of immense value as affirmed enduring truths – rather than metaphysical guesses and acts of faith and belief that deny any obligation to seek the adjudication of educated reason.

Modernity is a celebration of intellectual passion – for good or ill – and refusing to be a part of it is to profoundly misunderstand the wisdom of the past in favour of dogmas that dull minds and stifle imagination. A god wants this to be the preferred way?

We are on the cusp of profound changes. The technologies that facilitate our aspirations may not be wisely husbanded, but they will continue to change how we experience our lives. Regardless of the cause, climate change will oblige us to adapt to unwelcome extremes. Our engagement with other sentient agents will become more overt and intense.

Every now and then I tune into popular culture to see what’s trending. Movies can be a remarkable barometer. A few years ago, when I started looking at lists of top grossing movies, I was astonished to see a mere handful of ‘normal life’ movies in the top 100. The most were sci fi and fantasy. Oddly Titanic, one of the few ‘normal life’ movies was #1 back then. 

It seemed our spiritual and religious passions were being catered for via sci fi and fantasy. Our imaginations were way beyond the iron age agrarian settings of our foundational spiritual sources.

Time to seriously rethink.

What next?

About 2,000 years ago a small movement generated by a Jewish spiritual teacher became a world transforming force. It would be unrealistic to say this movement caused the transformation, but it certainly was the carrier of a great evolutionary impulse – and came to symbolise it. It was not the exclusive carrier, just the dominant one. That impulse has flowed on, and the carrier has waned in power and significance.

Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is the most compelling exploration of this idea. It is little read by folks interested in religion because nothing about the books suggests it has anything to do with the theme. Even the subtitle – The Origins Of Western Liberalism – hints not at all that the book is on the impact of Christianity.

Through Jeff Kripal who taught me to see religion in a secular context, I came across Luke Lafitte’s Machine Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm – Spiritual Freedom and the Re-animation of Matter. Lafitte’s book was no easy read and I am not sure I read it the way he intended. I wrote him a thank you note but he didn’t reply. But it pushed me to understand that we must see our spirituality in our own context – for most this is urban and high tech. It’s not agrarian and iron age. There’s no reason why our next ‘saviour’ may not be ET or a cyborg.

Incidentally, in looking up Jeff Kripal on Amazon I discovered he’s finally got a new book out (see the hyperlink above). Even the Kindle version is priced as an academic text. But he’s one of my favourite, and most provocative, authors – so no audiobook. I bought the Kindle version. The title, The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities, hints of another fascinating adventure. The website blurb proclaims – A bold challenge to rethink the humanities as intimately connected to the superhuman and to “decolonize reality itself.”

Reality isn’t terra nullius. This is a difficult concept to grasp at first, because we create our experience of it. But in so doing we impose our preconceptions, our conditioning, our habits of thought. We can shut out what is there by imposing ideologies and dogmas that flood our consciousnesses with asserted ‘truths’. These ‘truths’ include our faith traditions, materialistic ideologies and other beliefs and opinions. This also includes concepts baked into our cultural norms – religion and science are good examples.

This kind of thinking might be unfamiliar to the reader steeped in the standard fare on spirituality and religion. It could even be unsettling. The familiar spiritual and religious discourses carry a sense of the known, even if we don’t know much about them. They are established. But they are also backward looking – and there’s something of value in that – especially if the spirit of the past is absent in the present. However, looking backwards doesn’t help in the current age – unless our goal is to return to the simple low-tech agrarian life.

Thomas Campbell’s My Big TOE opens up and entirely different landscape – one that straddles the physical and the metaphysical. Campbell is associated with the Monroe Institute, established by Robert Monroe, as is Frank DeMarco, an author whose works have fascinated me.

These are not the only source of different ways of engaging with spiritual an religious ideas, but they are forward thinking and the direction we need to be heading, backed by contemporary sciences. We have new territory to expand into – as explorers, not colonisers. The inhabitants of the deeper reality aren’t into us trying that stuff.


My grandson is turning 18 in a week as I write this. His spirituality is not steeped in old lore. Rather it is grounded in Star Wars and the Marvel universe. A few years back he asked his grandmother if there was a god and she said there was in a most unhelpful way. She was eager to affirm her belief and so lost the chance to ask an essential question, “What do you mean by ‘god’?” He has had no motivation to reopen the question. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it seemed to me to be a lost opportunity to initiate a calm discourse blessed with subtlety and insight.

Old lore has its values if approached in a fortunate way. I grew up steeped in Theosophy, ritual magic, and Wicca, but not always in helpful ways. I had to struggle with credulous associates who were believers rather than seekers. But I got a good grounding in a decent idea of human spiritual anatomy. Nobody would expect a doctor to practice medicine with no understanding of physical anatomy. That is tangible and measurable in concrete ways. But no such requirement is imposed upon practitioners of spiritual or religious traditions. We are content with traditional dogma and commentary. That’s what killed so many people when medicine was a gentleman’s pursuit rather than a science.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, in How Emotions are Made, argues that our theory of emotions is all wrong. We don’t have an accurate anatomy of emotions. Our penchant for religious ideology has infected our capacity for scientific thought and perpetuated an affection for dogma disguised as reasoned truth.

There’s a lot about the past we must jettison. Yes, more transformation/change fatigue – especially if we get it wrong out of sloppiness, laziness, or ideological hubris. And the odds of that are high.

My grandson is a child of the 21st century. He is inner urban, high tech. His spiritually can’t look back – behind him there’s only a fog of ideology and ignorance far denser than what surrounds him now.

When I discovered the idea of animism, I knew quite quickly it was anachronistic, but I didn’t have good alternative to convey what it meant to me. Unlike others who took to the word I wasn’t in need of something to articulate a sentiment. I was looking for an explanation for lived experience. I am seeing now that religion and even science are words that are better scraped from our minds into the dustbin of redundant notions. But we can’t be too hasty. We must have at least made a down payment on what will replace them – and we are a long way from doing that.

If my grandson came to me and asked, “Is there a god?” I’d like to say, “That’s an interesting question. Tell me why you want to know.” Then we might have a conversation about our future, not our past.

Boundaries and filters


Between our sense of being in our world and how we imagine the divine we have boundaries and filters that are both organic and psychological. 

The organic boundaries and filters are created by our brains to ensure our organic being is able to function in the physical world – to at least survive and maybe flourish. 

The psychological boundaries and filters are more complex because they relate to both spiritual and psychological maturity. The extent to which this can be appreciated depends upon how we think about our nature.

A Christian will have an understanding that is essentially different from a Buddhist because each has a distinct theory of human nature and the soul. I have read extensively in both and found Buddhism had a more cogent theory of human nature. Christianity relied on dogma and faith. It was more a drama of philosophy. Each tradition arose from a very different root.

This difference is of interest as we discover more about what it is to be human – fusing new science with old lore. Considerably more intellectual energy in the west has been devoted to the eastern paths than Christianity.

In the first quadrant of the 21st century there are interesting trends in western cultures:

  • Christianity is struggling to hold onto its once dominant role.
  • Atheism has increased, largely as a reaction against Christianity.
  • Alternative expressions of religion and spirituality are growing.
  • There has been a steady growth in spiritually orientated inquiry in neuroscience and psychology.
  • Our access to ideas and information and the means to share or contest them is unprecedented.

The idea that what we believe, and value is a zero-sum game has taken root among those who are traditionalists and who have an adverse reaction to these trends.

This is a good time to reflect on how we behave as individuals and community members. We can contribute to the evolution of our psychospiritual environment. Or we can try to jam our stakes of hubris and dogma into the spokes of the evolutionary wheel.

We humans do not evolve in any orderly way. Any reflection upon the human condition globally will reveal a spectrum with stark differences. That lack of equality may be unfortunate, but it’s a feature, not a bug. It makes it harder for the ‘good guys’ to exert their beneficent influence. But who said being a ‘good guy’ was easy? This is nowhere better illustrated in the Biblical idea of the false prophet.

Consider this: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15). There is more at


Considering whether what you have been induced to believe looks like an obligation, but it is also a huge burden. It is way easier to find a comfortable nook of faith and belief and settle down than become an irritating type who questions the prophet.

In these days who really knows what is good and true and right? So many people in the present marketplace are motivated by personal gain to present themselves as prophets and guides.

I think our best defence against being a sucker to a fraud or a roadblock to our own evolution is to be aware of two instruments we have and use all the time.

We set boundaries and we create filters to keep us safe and to conserve our energy. If we take responsibility for doing so, and add a modicum of insight we improve our chances of not being suckered and distracted.

Beliefs as boundaries and filters and why they matter

Brain science suggests that the brain will process input from the material world and our imagination in a similar way. I had been listening to Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman’s Words Can Change Your Brain when this insight was casually delivered. The implications were stunning, and I had to stop listening because my head was off down a luminous path.

Our reality, as substantially organic beings, is created by what our senses tell us, plus our imaginings. I want to distinguish between imagination in the ‘creative’ sense and imagination arising from beliefs generated by the mere fact of being conscious organic beings. What we believe to be true, we imagine to be true. And what we imagine to be true we, we can believe to be true.

In our normal lives we process sensory data and modify it with guesses/predictions. This is mostly done in a non-rational unconscious way that can also conform with shared beliefs. Those shared beliefs can be culture-wide, held by a small community or entirely individual.

We modify our organic sensory experiences with multiple imaginations/beliefs, and these make up our reality. That multiplicity of imaginations/beliefs includes the sum of our subjective personal experiences which intersects with other individual subjective imaginations/beliefs and group imaginations/beliefs – family, faith, community, and culture. It’s a massive body of interweaving stimuli that we need to manage. Without boundaries and filters we would be overwhelmed.

What’s true or false, good or bad, sacred or profane, essential or optional, valuable or worthless matters massively. We set value filters and we set boundaries or limits on what we can think, believe, or entertain.

Filters in action

I share a passion for the sacred and the divine with most of humanity. I have beliefs and ideas that are my tools for engaging with what I imagine the sacred and the divine to be. They fit my needs.

I do my best to esteem values and beliefs that are good and true. But I am deeply aware that this is a highly personal business. My personal filters are adapting to new ideas – blocking old notions and being more responsive to new ones. And I resist some ideas when they seem to be too confronting – until I have had time to adjust myself them. But it is also possible to set my filter to block challenging notions.

We filter as we dare.

Boundaries in action

I must limit what I can engage with. Hence there are some religious/spiritual ideas/beliefs/practices I will not consider or pay attention to. They do not meet my needs.

This does not mean that I do not do honour other ways and disparage them as unworthy. They might be something I’d enjoy and value if I had a mind to explore them.

Boundaries are important. Some paths have deep and valued cultural traditions, and they demand time and attention that leaves no energy to engage beyond. Other paths may be a struggle between an alluring diversity and the need to develop depth on only a few options.

Fences keep some things in and other things out. If we manage our boundaries well, we can grow in a balanced way.

Seekers versus followers

We are in an age when being Spiritual, Not Religious is a class that distinguishes itself from the Religious. It’s a distinction that might be thought of as DIY as opposed to following an established method. Its not inherently superior because it has major drawbacks.

But what it does do is articulate a discontent with settled established traditions and aspire to new insights. This is pretty much like early post-Jesus movements. When the filters and boundaries become atrophied as components of a cultural artefact and tradition, they come to serve more the cultural dimension and less the sacred.

The divine is always breaking the rules humans set to contain it. But this isn’t through what we call ‘revelation’ which is a political term to suggest that the divine speaks only through approved established channels. A better term is ‘insight’- an ongoing evolution of awareness open to all.

But cultures need a sense of connection with the divine as much as individuals do. So, faiths serve a vital function at a cultural and communal level. That function esteems stability and conformity. Hence there have always been non-stable non-conforming minorities intent on ‘truth-seeking’ over compliance and conformity.

The importance of evolution

Everything evolves, but at very different rates. Western culture has been messed up by the dogma of perfect creation. Simply, what God creates has to be perfect – so evolution is ridiculous as an idea. 

But evolution is the ability to adapt to change, and change is everywhere. God didn’t create a static reality, so the ‘perfect’ creation is adaptive – evolving.

Humans are change resistant. We like things to stay the same, despite the hype over us chasing novelty with a passion. We like a healthy mix of stability and novelty – a lot of the former and a little (but steady flow) of the latter.

So, here’s the thing. Most humans like stability and they like their religion integrated into their culture and community in a way that lets them get on with the essential job of maintaining organic being on a spectrum from survival to flourishing.

But because the divine is always dynamic it puts pressure on the stable and change-resistant to adapt more readily to the changes that are flowing into our reality.

I think this is why movements like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam evolved. What we don’t know is what were the influences on the imaginative level that triggered these movements. We tend to think of the imaginative as not substantive, but if we see it as a dimension comprised of a fusion of belief, fantasy, thought, and emotion it is actually a powerful influence that is shaping our reality. You can call it consciousness if you like.

Our sense of reality is mediated by our brains through the combining of input from organic senses and our consciousness. Of course, there’s a whole field of inquiry about exactly what those words may mean. But the basic idea is plain.

Evolution is a theme that runs through it all. Its only a particularly obdurate, but small (though disproportionately influential) minority that resists. We need to imagine evolution in more fruitful ways.

Setting our own boundaries and filters

We all do this. It is necessary for our emotional and mental health. We can do so as members of large established communities of faith, as members of orders and covens, or as solo or independent loosely affiliated seekers or believers.

There are risks in any of those settings in terms of distorting truths. In fact, no filter will reveal undistorted reality. Filters are an inescapable element of our consciousness. We can’t remove them. We can only be aware we have them. And we need boundaries to protect ourselves from our own follies and conceits as well as protecting others from the same.

The needs of seekers are not met by the communities of followers, and vice versa. Enmity from either toward the other reflects psychological and spiritual naivety. 

We are each where we are. Pride in being who we are and in a contest with those who are not like us is psychologically and spiritually immature.

What we set for ourselves is in response to our needs and expectations. It’s not a measure of any contest we have with others.


We like to think that what we believe is true. It is – for us. Our reality is only partially shared with others. This is the awkward truth about our organic existence. We can know about ‘objective reality’ only via our brains which process input from our organic senses, plus our imaginations. In short, what we think is our experience of ‘objective reality’ is crafted our imagination/belief – and the ignorance, pride and immaturity that comprises a good measure of it.

To the extent that we value a shared/objective reality we must acknowledge that our beliefs/imaginations set boundaries and create filters that profoundly influence how we experience it.

And when it comes to the sacred and divine, what we can say as an expression of confident truth? I am starting to see objective reality as the stone inside a peach whose flesh is woven from all who engage with it and imagine it (human and other than human). We esteem the peach not for the stone, but the flesh.


Soon after I drafted this, I began listening to Lisa Feldman Barrett’s utterly remarkable book How Emotions Are Made. She builds on Newberg’s and Waldman’s work by arguing that what we think we know about emotions isn’t right.

There’s so much good work done in psychology and neuroscience these days that our notions of the spiritual/religious can be transformed – if we have a coherent theory of being human as a spiritual being.

Ritual by Dimitris Xygalatas is another beautifully conceived book that gives a fresh understanding of ritual as both a sacred and secular impulse.

For those who grew up in the Christian tradition and who are trying to decondition their mind from that influence, I also recommend the works of Daniel McClellan – his presence on YouTube and Tik Tok and the Data Over Dogma podcast especially.

We have religion all wrong


I think we have religion all wrong. I am not saying that what we call religion isn’t what we think it is, only that things we think aren’t religion are essentially the same thing as well. 

The error we make is in assuming that religions must involve some idea of God. In fact, God is an idea, a signifier, of some sense of ultimate being and cause. It is a seminal theory of everything – at its most fundamental level. To the materialist there is evolution and the Big Bang to signify being and cause. 

God is a big idea, but also vague, filled out by metaphysical imagination. The idea doesn’t have to resolve in any kind of personhood, but it may do so for some. When we survey the spectrum of big God ideas they vary greatly. Incidentally, I am using ‘God’ to denote a principal deity, not just the highly personalized Christian idea. All traditions have a singular overarching sense of deity. This includes the God of monotheists, the God of deists, the indescribable and unimaginable deity of mystic traditions, and various chief gods of the variety of polytheistic traditions.

The sense of The One or The All in its various renderings isn’t God in the same sense. Its more a unified pervasive consciousness (which raises the question of what we mean by consciousness) that’s closer to the mystical sense of indescribable and unimaginable deity – and may differ in name only. The word ‘God’ (with a capital G) can be employed to cover a spectrum of ideas but denotes a personal association with them. Whatever we mean by ‘God’ we include a personal association.

The materialist imagines Nature that is driven by evolution and bounded by laws. To the materialist reality is an ‘it’ and any ‘thous’ that exist arise directly from ‘it’. To the ‘religious’ ‘it’ has arisen from a primary ‘Thou’.

This ‘it’/’Thou’ distinction is a handy shorthand for some complex ideas that can overwhelm our ability to think clearly.

Whether we think reality is fundamentally a thou-generating-it (materialistic) or an it-generating-Thou(religious) essentially depends on our circumstances. If we are raised in a culture where religious faith is valued, we are more likely to assume an it-generating-Thou. Intense religious practice or experience will confirm the habit of thought. Rational aversions to religious practice, culture, or dogma may trigger a preference for a thou-generating-it explanation. Consciousness, in this view, can only ever be epi-phenomenal. 

The animistic perspective might be called a thou-generating-Thou. But let’s be also clear that the religious perspective is an ‘it and thou generating Thou.

To the extent we can exert intentional rational choice over what we believe, we make what I call a ‘metaphysical guess’ on which option is chosen and what detail we prefer. For most of us that guess is sufficient until something motivates a desire or need to change. That is to say that we can’t ‘know’ the truth in any objective sense, we can only decide what is true for us.

Does it matter?

To us as individuals or communities it does matter, because so much of our subjective psychology, as individuals, or shared cultures of meaning and value are constructed upon these choices/guesses.

But on a rational scale, in terms of what is true or false, it does not. This is because, absent a genuine fearless passion for truth-finding, people will inhabit a subjective zone of belief until it loses any value or utility. Truth finders will assert it does matter to them. But imposing the same values upon others is unwise. Their position is indistinguishable from any other subjective position to anybody else. Consequently, claiming nothing is often a good move. That is to say that silence can be the wiser option.

The Truth is likely more than we can presently believe. This suggests that all we can assert at any time is that we are truth seeking in the best way we can. This isn’t a competitive activity. It is not a zero-sum game. It a matter of belief – one held among many. It is the best opinion we can presently craft.

Our current high standard of truth seeking involves disciplined rational inquiry. We don’t value disciplined self-awareness to the same extent. But we can see from past traditions in many cultures that these 2 forms of discipline have been highly valued together. In fact, they have been an essential union.

Ardent truth seeking via faith, belief, and personalized subjective spiritual experience, as popular as it is, is inherently unreliable. It eschews rational and subjective discipline in favour obedience to unchallenged norms and conformity with unexamined ‘truths’. At best this approach is entry level. It is discarded as people become more reflective and critical. The entry level paths will not disappear any time soon.

It is a mark of our times (over the past 200 years for instance) that we have been undergoing a revolution in both rational inquiry (as exemplified by science) and self-inquiry (as exemplified by religious and spiritual, philosophical, and psychological inquiry). This revolution has by no means run its course. There are, I believe, a few centuries to go yet, at least. 

Do please note that both rational and subjective inquiry have been highly energetic. The pity is that it is uncommon to find both so energetically pursued in the same individual.

We are witnessing a steady transition away from traditional religion into alternative forms of thought, belief, and practice, and into atheism and materialism as this revolution progresses. In essence, our expression of our religious impulse is evolving and diversifying.

Truth matters, of course. But assuming one knows it is another thing. Of greater concern is whether our individual passions for ‘truth’ are cooperative, collaborate or collegiate rather than contested and combative. Whether we are good neighbors and community members or whether we want to pick fights and foster division is what matters in our mundane lives. 

What we believe has become more important than how we behave. This might be a post-Enlightenment legacy, but we can see the seeds being sown in early Christianity. Now we can condemn good people because we disagree with their beliefs, even though they have no adverse impact on us as individuals or the community as a whole.

This is changing as theological or faith-based dogma is being asserted as objective fact, absent any rational foundation. But this isn’t an abuse of ‘religion’ itself, just the manifestation of social expressions of fear and anxiety communicated through a particular community’s culture.

It is interesting that in our recoded history concerns about character have remained constant. All else may have changed – the cultural, political, economic, technological, or scientific – but the problem of character remains. We still haven’t figured that how we behave matters more than what we believe. What we believe influences how we behave, but this is often because we believe that what we believe matters more than how we behave.

How we manage our belief/behaviour is critical to our welfare. But this is linked also to identity at a cultural and individual existential level.

Is religion inherent in our nature?

In my early research into animism, I concluded that we had a shared psychological architecture that was animistic at its core. If we aren’t explicitly animistic, we are implicitly so. 

It is true that some people assert they are flat out materialistic and won’t have a bar of any idea they are in any way animistic. But have you ever heard a materialist talking about evolution? They cannot avoid ascribing agency to it, while defending their words by insisting it’s just a matter of language. Maybe.

I have come to see that we are also inherently ‘religious’. We all have a theory of everything. Now this is mostly entirely vague and not at all thought through – and extends no more than our need it to ‘explain’ our situation to ourselves. It doesn’t need to be objectively true, just subjectively coherent. It is an existential dialogue, not a rational one.

Our traditional idea of religion has served us well in doing this for most of human history. We mustn’t misunderstand it now.

This idea has two utterly imprecise, but related, ideas behind it. The first is – ‘as above, so below’. The second is allied – a sense of holographic reality in which any small thing models what is large. 

Even from a purely organic perspective we need to develop some theory of being and behaviour made up from the best ideas we can come up with. This is how we survive in the physical world. We don’t live in a fog of question marks. Our brains routinely fill in the gaps. In short, no matter who we are, we have the best theory of everything we can develop.

This extends beyond the organic to the psychological where our theory of everything blends our experience of organic being with whatever subjective awareness we can have.

As organic beings we have a most remarkable organ – the brain – whose function it is to receive and process input from our reality, regulate our own bodies and stimulate behaviour in response to the input. Neuroscience suggests our brains may be inherently holistic. Yet while we may possess an innate potential for holistic awareness we are limited by our sense of identity and relationship. If you like, our egos constrain how our potential for identity and relationship may express – as an individual, as a community member – how we think, feel and act.

Our cultures have an innate overriding theory of everything. This may be fused with religious traditions, philosophical traditions or other intellectual traditions depending on how complex and pluralistic the culture may be.

The term ‘religion’ isn’t always used in a spiritual context. The idea of a secular religion has been around for ages. If we understand it is in our nature to develop holistic notions about reality, no matter how vague they are, we may see that ‘religion’ is a universal form of encountering our reality.

There’s nothing about spiritual religious practice or belief that isn’t replicable in an entirely secular context. There’s nothing in our psychology that is distinctly spiritual as a separate attribute. Rather we are inherently spiritual – and this has a secular expression too.

Between spiritual and secular ‘religion’ we must distinguish between a common form and singular content in important ways. For example, the difference between French and Chinese cuisine is pronounced. You would be unlikely to mistake the two. But both are obedient to the same rules of chemistry and physics. Both serve nutritional and social needs. 

We could argue that Chinese food traditions and methods are not a cuisine because that word is French and Chinese food is cooked differently. But that would be pointless in terms of understanding food and the people who prepare and eat it. 

Cuisine and religion, as terms, are similar. If you define either in a narrow way the differences can seem to be about nature and not form. 

If religion is defined in a way that describes Christianity, then Buddhism seems less like a valid religion and materialism not at all. But if we define religion in terms of process rather than belief the distinctions cease to be so patently evident. 

The need for ToEs

The term Theory of Everything (ToE) has become popular from a scientific perspective in relatively recent times. A ToE is an effort to develop an integrated theory that ‘explains’ reality. We all have our modest versions of a ToE to ‘explain’ our lived experience, not to describe how reality works. It’s a personal thing. Our brain doesn’t do question marks. When we don’t know for sure, our mind thinks “There be dragons.” For dragons, substitute any number of other ‘fill in the gaps’ notions. These dragons can be hopes or fears.

Our self-consciousness is a small light which merges with reality as the known, the unknown and the unknowable via knowledge and emotions employing rational ideas, myths, metaphors, rituals, and symbols. Our options are to engage with it the best way we can and be content, or aspire to a deeper, more complex, and better-balanced engagement.

We are always crafting our holistic ToE to help us be conscious of the part of our reality we are aware of. It just happens to be mostly vague and often wrong.

Terms like ‘sacred’ and ‘enlightenment’ have spiritual and secular applications, and neither negates the other. While we do need language to distinguish ideas, we must move beyond the imagined antagonisms that pit science and religion, and spiritual and secular against each other.

We create conflict when we see members of the same spectrum as distinct and adversarial. This conflict happens when things are insufficiently thought through, and we activate our subjective impulse to be competitive. Then we are centred in our organic being, triggering all the primate mechanisms which sit ill at ease with our ‘spiritual’ nature.

Belief is a powerful tool, but also a stronger prison. Our ToEs can be compasses or confusions.


You will note that while there are endless scholarly books written about religion, you’d struggle to find many about materialism or atheism. There are plenty of books on both themes but not many as disciplined inquiries. We just haven’t thought things through in a balanced way yet.

We are on the verge of huge breakthroughs in understanding. Our past ideas about religion and spirituality don’t serve us well because they are polarised in a misguided contest that marks the early stages of revolution of thought. Time to let them go.

Our reality is complex and multi-layered. No single ToE will explain it (yet), but any of many may serve the needs of an individual or a community as part of an evolutionary progression. Spiritual religions, as ToEs, serve multiple primarily existential subjective needs. Secular ToEs may meet both subjective and rational needs. Intellectual ToEs may serve what seem essentially rational needs but can’t be separated from subjective and cultural needs. Of course, any of the 3 can be blended in any measure to meet singular personal or communal needs. We are doing this now.

So, have I lost something vital in all this? I hope only the narrow focus upon, and privileging of, poorly thought through claims and arguments. Our western culture has not championed self-awareness. We have debased emotions as weak and irrational. We have celebrated isolated rationalism in religious and intellectual pursuits for so long the trend toward deeper self-awareness is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable thing. One the one hand we have hyper intellectual materialists attacking religion and on the other purveyors of fundamentalist religious dogma attacking reason and science. Neither are psychologically healthy – and by that, I mean neither emotionally nor spiritually.

There are extraordinary dimensions to discover if we give ourselves permission. Religion is what made us who we are. It has been a healthy fusion of intellectual and scientific inquiry, psychology, philosophy over many millennia. Mind and emotions were honoured together. But like anything else human, it has cycles of expression. It soars and then plummets. It reaches a point where what has served to stimulate growth becomes a sea-anchor. 

Our love of stability is balanced by a spirit of curiosity and a love novelty. But we resist positive changes and pursue adverse ones because we are dominated by our organic nature and are hence captive to its often maladaptive and irrational reactions to novel situations.

We have a lot to rethink about ourselves and the reality we live in.