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Spirituality, Consciousness, God, Conscious Machines & the Atheist Mind.
Having tried to convey what we mean, we need to take a Time Out: Perhaps as an atheist, at this point if you were tallying pluses and minuses between religious belief and atheism, it might occur to wonder if the religious folk have an advantage here. You know about the formalities and traditions they have, ministers and representatives of their faith around (something we atheists don’t have) that give them something to fall back on, a familiar routine already in place to fill up those holes of self-doubt when things go bad, with others of the same religious belief ready to comfort and reaffirm your flagging faith and support and occupy and take the edge off some of the more raw parts of the psyche in such stressful times, ways of helping to assure you you still belong and are not lost the way you feel you might be, to displace and work through the shock and panic of how you will you carry on, an imaginary place to “park” those raw intense feelings, at least for long enough to let time scab the wound over and seal up a little and heal a bit and life begins to pull us back again.
But the plain fact is, this WILL normally happen anyway, whether you’re an atheist or believer, if you can only manage to endure and hang on and let it, just knowing this will happen should be in itself a comfort, so too being with good non-judgmental friends, particularly ones who have shared similar encounters, who won’t hassle you for whatever way you find to deal with it, as long as it doesn’t involve totally isolating or harming yourself or others. And also, it’s usually religious folk who feel compelled to wrangle in pain over why misfortune has visited them because they believed all along their god loved and looked out for them and they were each special in his eyes and so must have a reason for deserting them now and visiting such shattering events upon them, something they must have done wrong, even though they tried to live right and do right.
And then it’s the atheist’s advantage, we have no such illusions to add another onerous burden of grief and abandonment and self-blame to get through, even though we know that the causes are probably depressingly banal, human nature is to try and find someone to blame, but down deep in the honesty of our hearts we know we have to accept it because there aren’t any alternatives. Natural aging, bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, unfortunate genes, one unfortunate or bad choice, knowing that bad things happen all the time to decent people who didn’t deserve it. We have no pious blowoffs, no shrugs about it being “god’s will” or that god is “testing us” in our grab bags of feelings, we have to face the facts and if appropriate accept responsibility and try to fix it as much as possible.
Even through the pain, those platitudes trotted out by the religious folk ring false and are laughably empty and unacceptable in the face of true spiritual suffering, they actually reveal religion’s impotence and failure and false reassurance when up against real tragedy, relying on this god-father figure instead of developing your own resources isn’t going to save you. Denying or refusing to look at it is another way some religious people react, much of religion involves not looking problems in the face, retreating mentally into a past state before their beliefs were tested and back when religious explanations still looked like a rock to anchor themselves to is easier for the faithful. But for how long can such residents of New Orleans post hurricane Katrina, the victims of the December 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh and the Indian Ocean area, or the Twin Towers on 9-11 hide in what is essentially a retrograde fantasy state before reality sets in and their glass menageries get shattered?
With all these things in mind, knowing that pain and suffering comes to atheists just as to the faithful and that it involves spiritual concerns, we have come up with our own conclusion that spirituality is as natural specifically to the human condition as any other emotion, and that it has real and specific purpose in our lives. Less a survival mechanism, more of a coping one for us sentient self-aware beings. It is inextricably involved with the advanced nature of our lives and our state of consciousness being on a level which animals do not have. It lets us have our inner world where we can sublimate the animal passions that civilization makes us suppress, it lets us rationalize and give meaning to things that have happened, to reach to an imagined future that may be possible or forever only of dreams, it lets us fantasize and be amused and create things and also manage questions such as Why did this happen to me?, What will it be like when I die?, and so on. So for reasons that may become more apparent later, we incidentally note here that our superficially orderly universe has profoundly strange and not yet understood (science-based non-religious) currents pulsating through it, on both the sub-atomic and the overarching levels, which we believe may be interlaced into our spiritual tendencies.
But with the assumption that spirituality is a unique something that actually exists and that atheists absolutely have their spiritual side too, it is time to ask how and when (and why) did this spirituality arise in humans? There’s no evidence even in the fossil record to show anything with any 100% certainty, we can only draw inferences; otherwise we have to use what evidence we can get from the earliest known extant writings, all of them written long after spirituality was a recognizable trait identified in human legends. So we offer a working hypothesis, but it is ours! No doubt this will incite critiques about making sweeping generalizations and leave us vulnerable to all sorts of criticisms as to when this or that might have really occurred, but just for the sake of argument, let’s start with “Lucy”; even though her brain case is said to have been pretty small, just because she is so well known we will symbolically suppose she could have carried the fortunate mutation which eventually expressed itself in one of her descendants and impelled us on the path to developing enlarged brains/forebrains with increased capacity for consciousness;
which begot (greater) self-awareness of the environment & world around us.
Concurrently came improved survival skills because we began to grasp (okay, we punned it) how to use found implements to hunt with and then how to actually make weapons and tools instead of relying on found objects. But in order to pass these survival advantages on to our companions and families, grunts and pointing didn’t do the trick too well, our (maybe just-then newly developed within the brain structure) Broca’s Area learned to work with other parts of our enlarged brains and found ways to apply labels and meanings to various things and create syntax to express our intents more perfectly so that speech came to be (estimated at about 100,000 years ago),
and improved communication,
and the need to agree amongst our own groups so all understood the meaning of each label (different languages), an instant jump to internalization of the labels in our conscious minds, so we could relate the label to the thing or even a drawing of the thing without needing it to be there in front of us.
Labeling also meant we had to observe external items more carefully and thereby the newly enlarged brain capacity became a self-sustaining exercise to maintain the advantage it gave us. But simply amassing labels for things would not be sufficient, to make use of them meant the beginnings of abstract ideas, working with them wholly internally so as to foresee alternate possible outcomes.
In other words, foresight. Foresight meant a beginning of grasping past cycles of the seasons, how they repeated, how they would come again , so we began to understand how to reliably raise crops through farming. Somewhere during this period, it’s also likely that childhood in humans became a more lengthy affair since the pressure for our young to immediately develop survival skills was eased somewhat, being able to have some control over a relatively consistent supply of food meant that parents could provide longer for them instead of casting them out to fend for themselves shortly after they were able to walk.
With extended childhood and youth came an extension of the teaching/learning period and curiosity to learn and understand (what point otherwise in labeling things and not reliably passing this knowledge on?), and from there on to even more improved communication and finally to reading and writing (about 5,000 years ago) when we suddenly could pass along increasingly huge reams of discovery and thought of previous generations and build upon it instead of having to virtually “reinvent the wheel” with each new generation.
From then it’s a short jump to wondering why things are the way they are (a critical part of evolution, where are the animals that ask why of anything? Or how? Well, you get the idea.). Still, if we didn’t have the science and the knowledge at that point to explain them, why let that be an obstacle?,
and this is the essence of how we come to notions of magic and gods and of amusing ourselves and our social group with fictional stories about the nature of life itself. When we opened up our minds to wonder about the nature of things this almost surely developed into spirituality. We made up fantastic explanations and answers that for the moment satisfied and calmed us. In other words, magic was invented to cope with our questions, naive as they were at that stage of evolution and development. But magic was the early essence of much conceptualized spirituality, it was never something “out there,” and it’s not with an external god, it’s from inside us, in our human minds and the explanations we sought before being armed with the necessary understanding, even though we may invest external symbols with it and the external symbols may come represent it to us and help us connect back to that part of ourselves. Which is to say that “God” is just an externalized embodiment of those nobler, better, goals and desires and need for explanations we found in ourselves.
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