The New Age: Elements of Religion

December 16, 2012

This post started off as a comment in the discussion from the previous post. It started getting a bit long, and I wanted to add some references, so I decided to put it here as a separate post. It dives abruptly into the topic and assumes a great deal, so it’s meant more as a bunch of sign posts for discussion, rather than a finished or complete statement.

I see religion as being a bunch of psychological quirks which have been bundled together and labeled “religion”, and treated as if it’s a unified whole. Modern religion is a modern invention and bears little resemblance to the “religion” of previous epochs. The psychological quirks which modern religion exploits, however, are as old as the hills. Just don’t expect to find any sophisticated theology or philosophical musings to appear on the list. Those appeared much later, as a tool of political power. In Europe, for example, the unified philosophy behind Catholicism beat all other religious competitors in the dark & middle ages (according to Bertrand Russell), and despite all the professed sincerity of theologians, I see it as a “top down” ideology rather than anything to be equated with the ancient and primal impulses that make religion a virtually universal human trait. 

After reading a bit and thinking over the last few years, I’d argue that the individual psychological elements that lead to religion include:

* Sacrifice – the idea of offering something to a higher power in return for protection seems a very straight forward extension of a social exchange within a hierarchy. (Animals who live in hierarchical groups seem to share this, eg., cats who bring their owners dead birds seem to be doing some form of this.)

* Life after death – seems a very straight forward continuation of “object permanence” (infants learn that an object continues to exist even when they don’t see it), linked with social cognition and memory of individuals. (Again animals have this too, though probably lack the ability to become theologians)

* Ideas about causation (/active agents) – we’ve only sorted this stuff out recently, but we still find ourselves imagining that the bus company deliberately draws up its timetable exactly so we’ll see the bus pulling away just as we come out the door. There need be no surprise that people have seen dragons in lightning, or a god in the western wind.

* Hierarchy – we’re basically happy and function well if someone says they’re the boss and starts ordering people around. If that person says they also have a boss who’s much bigger and grumpier, it works all the better. Like other animals, we have a whole set of behaviors related to our perception of our place within particular hierarchies, so it’s easily exploited.

* Male fear and anger towards women – men are stronger than women, and have difficulty understanding that this doesn’t automatically grant either the right or even the means to have dominion over women in the way they have dominion over cows and sheep. Religion in its modern form allows men to say that sex is wrong (and women who arouse them sexually are evil), so they don’t need to feel how much they desire it, nor risk feeling the pain and humiliation of rejection. Religion is the perfect vehicle for this form of male stupidity and cowardice. (See footnotes)

These single elements are found in the animal kingdom too, which I note in order to point out that these behaviors sit very deeply in our neuroanatomy. 

People today often talk about all forms of religion as if it’s a single phenomenon. But its “unity” is a modern invention, These elements used to be deeply embedded in everyday life as well as in ritual events and artistic expression etc. Today, given that science has proved more useful at explaining and utilizing the forces of nature, thereby ripping the old culture of ritual etc to shreds, religion has learned to throw a blanket over the damage and maintain power for its priests, as well as on a personal level, maintain some kind of psychological satisfaction for people who find science a bit hard to swallow (or don’t have the time or inclination to try)

New Age spirituality has managed to distance itself from all the mainstream religions exactly enough to be seen as providing an alternative, without abandoning its access to the psychological wellsprings of religion. It has managed to avoid the worst excesses, while exploiting the same psychological quirks as mainstream religions for its own profit and maintenance of power:

* Sexuality/ Oppression of Women – The one area where New Age spirituality has contributed something positive is that it has a fairly healthy attitude to sex, and relations between the sexes. For this, I think, it deserves some acknowledgement. It could easily be written off as pandering to a market, but a case could be made that many have found its healthier attitude to sexuality liberating.

However, in every other element in the above list, it has basically pulled the same or similar tricks that the big religions have pulled over the centuries.

* Sacrifice – As well as the normal hope and optimism that makes people over-estimate their chances of success, this impulse is also specifically targeted by many New Age teachers. Paying up front with your credit card (aka “investing in your future”) with practically no recourse to a refund. James Ray’s promises of breakthroughs that follow hard work used this impulse as a cover for psychological manipulation and sadism.

* Hierarchy – chimps have to claw and tear their way to the top of the hierarchy; but New Agers have found an easier way: simply form a hierarchy underneath you. An upcoming post (don’t hold your breath) will look at the way Neale Donald Walsch has done this, but for now I’ll just note: invent your own teachings and you’re immediately a leading expert on them; invent your own God and you’re immediately sitting at his right hand. Thanks to the psychological frailties of human nature, some people will inevitably be drawn to you, and bingo, you’re at the top of a hierarchy.

* Belief in life after death, and ideas about causation – The New Age has been far more successful in incorporating science into its propaganda than any of the big religions. Where Christianity gets laughed at for promoting Creationism, the New Age has Deepak Chopra lecturing physicists about quantum mechanics. Nuff said.


References etc.

This post, Medieval Quantum Theology, covers a debate between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris. Chopra doesn’t quite seem to know what hit him, but scrambles out of a tight corner when confronted by a leading physicist in the question time. Eventually Chopra wrote a book with the physicist, demonstrating, for my tastes at least, that some people are way too accommodating when it comes to dangerous self serving bullshit like the quackery that Chopra serves up.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, has an incredibly insightful coverage of the development of religious thought. Free (legal) PDF here

Breaking the Spell is a book by Dan Dennett, which deals with the origins of religion. Here’s a lecture on the topic.

Regarding the use of religion as a tool of oppression of women, this post, Pakistani Actress Fights Fire With Fire, shows an extraordinary clip of an incredibly brave woman standing up to a Muslim cleric who is attacking her like a yapping terrier. She’d already received death threats from the Taliban, but she expresses her attitude clearly: I’m more angry with you people than you are with me.” 



  1. I really like this, Yakaru! I’m not done writing about “Abraham-Hicks is just another religion” so naturally I really like reading what you have to say here. I will be quoting you on how new age teachings have managed to distance themselves from mainstream religions to appear to offer something useful, without having done so.

    Re: sexuality and oppression of women- there may be something “better” in the new age world in this area, but I also see plenty of new agers confused on the topic. (This is a blog post in the works as well.) While new age teachings may be “allowing” of what would be natural human sexuality, followers don’t exactly know how to get from point A to point B in terms of letting go of their conditioning re: sexuality.

    Must go, hope to explore this further. Another great post!

  2. This is a slightly dissenting comment – which coming from me is an indication of overall sympathy.

    I am not very well informed on matters of sexuality in New Age attitudes.

    I would question whether New Age attitudes towards sexuality are healthy. In some respects they are less sick (sic, unhealthy) compared with earlier (western) religious attitudes.

    I don’t regard birth control, contraception, abortion and homosexuality as healthy. My yardstick for “healthy” is “natural” or doing things in harmony with natural functions.

    I also want to mention that my understanding is that celibacy of the priesthood was not originally part of the Catholic church. Celibacy became instituted only after the Vatican (?) learnt that priests with a wife and children were prone to alienate (divert) the accumulating church material assets to their own families.

    Celibacy subsequently fed sexual frustration among the male clergy. I have been wondering just how long the sexual abuse of children by the clergy has been going on ? 100 years or 1000 years ?

  3. Two minute delay vis-a-vis Mariah, 15:28 versus 15:30

  4. @Mariah,
    Thanks! I had your post on Hicksianity in mind when writing this too. Good that there’s more to come.

    I also don’t want it to look like I am saying there’s nothing to criticize in New Age teachings on sex, just that it’s not as bad as any of the major religions. The bar is set quite low for anything to count as an improvement there.

    You and Mariah seem to have a bit of synchronicity going there.

    I’ll respond to your points in reverse order:
    I’ve read of Catholic rulings regarding pedophilia from the 5th Century – immediate expulsion from the priesthood was recommended (can’t remember where I read it. I might add a link later). I also suspect those old self-flagellation rituals may have origins in self-hatred of traumatized victims of childhood abuse. I guess it’s been going on for 1000+ years. These days of course it’s a massive pedophile ring, run by a pope who climbed up the hierarchy exactly because of his skill in protecting and pampering pedophiles.

    Of course, I’ll have to respond to your ideas about natural/healthy relating to sexuality. How do you land at the idea that homosexuality s not natural?

    And I disagree that anyone would argue that abortion is healthy, except in cases where the health of the mother is threatened by the pregnancy.

    And the idea that birth control is not “natural” makes me want to say, well okay, but neither is flying in an aeroplane or using the internet or obeying traffic lights. I can only ask why ever should one not use contraception, and what’s the harm?

  5. @Yakaru- I thought your comments on sexuality and new age teachings were a great discussion starter. I wanted to jump in with my views, having given it quite a bit of thought after reading the most excellent book, “Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality” by Darrel Ray.

    Will expect post from Donald T already posted (two minutes before) or coming soon.

  6. Sorry, the synchronicity is just a random event and nothing to do with quantum theory. However the subject matter of the two responses was similar, and was not accident nor randomness.

    How do I conclude homosexuality is not natural ?

    Human reproduction requires a little effort from a male and a lot of effort from a female. The natural process uses both a male and a female to make a baby.

    An homosexual couple cannot produce a baby without the intervention of a third person of the second missing sex. That makes the couple into a triple. One or other person of the homosexual couple is in effect redundant.

    Ordinarily, natural selection would lead to homosexual couples dying out, as normally they cannot redproduce offspring and one partner is functionless.

    They are unhealthy in that they cannot ordinarily reproduce and thus homosexual family model is dysfunctional.

    I also personally object to polygamy, but there is an argument to it that natural selection would favour polygamous males. I dread the Mormons and Muslims… Male chauvanist pig religions with a reproductive advantage allowing them to outbreed Catholics.

    Starting to ramble.

    Who was the pedophile Pope ?

    It’s ironic that pedophilia has started to bankrupt some Catholic dioceses, given that celibacy was originally instituted to protect the wealth of the church, whereas celibacy induced pedophilia, culminating in the victims & courts ever-so-slowly starting to take financial reprisals.

    Something else, as regards health and nature. The defined groups of people on the planet who on average as communities live the longest healthiest lives, such as Okinawans, Sicilians, Rosa / Loms Linda-ans (?) do not live in large metropolises. Humans are not biologically designed to live packed together in cities removed from agricultural production (in my view).

    If we did not have so many proliferating expanding cities with millions of inhabitants there would be fewer people overall and less over-exploitation of limited resources. The rapid (5 fold ?) increase in the number of humans in the last century is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term.

    But city-fication (?) is mostly an irreversible historical process. Detroit is a counter-example, some suburbs of Detroit are reverting from housing to vacant land.

  7. I think the newage attitude towards gender relations isn’t as progressive as some people think, though I’d say it’s generally better than the big three monotheisms, which have a traditionally negative attitude towards women. In my experience, newagers avoid the idea that one “competent” gender is supposed to dominate the other “incompetent” one, but they still promote the idea of gender roles, dividing up competencies. In particular, they like to depict women as being “intuitive” while men are “analytical.” It’s more equitable in the big picture, but it can lead to discouraging individuals from going for their dreams if they defy the gender stereotypes.

  8. On homosexuality: I’ve heard about a new study has found that it’s epigenetic, not on a particular gene. I haven’t read it, but I don’t find it surprising. As I understand it, something goes quirky in the womb which alters how certain genes are expressed, leading to a non-hetero attraction. It’s quite natural.

    I also really don’t like where this talk is going with “healthy” as if everyone is supposed to be reproductive through the One True Way To Live. Humans are social animals. Our strength comes from diversity and specialization. We contribute to the health of society in ways that don’t involve sex or reproduction.

    I’m on the borderline between hetero and asexual, and the latter tends to be neglected in discussion. I’m really not interested in marriage though I don’t rule out the possibility of stumbling on Ms. Right. I’m just not that motivated to go out to find her, and I’m not interested in being coerced into a relationship.

  9. On contraception and abortion: I think they lead to healthier families and empowers women to be healthier individuals. They don’t have to drop their careers or other dreams because of a moment of passion. They can plan their pregnancies so that they can raise kids when they can afford to give the money, time, attention, and other resources. We’re k-type reproducers. Our reproductive success comes from investing more resources into fewer children so that each child has a higher chance of being successful. If you’re forced into raising a kid before you’re ready, it can easily undermine the success and happiness of both parents and the children.

    And going into my previous comment, our reproductive success includes investing in other people’s children even if we don’t have our own.

  10. Air travel.
    I don’t think air travel is healthy or natural either. I go each way between Australia and Danmark (JetJihad/Airbus A320/330s usually) each year and consequently contribute something like one or two tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each way. I consider it’s selfish & wrong of me, it’s a waste of resources, and it’s waste of money – considering there are many people on the borderline of starvation.

    But I not travel by air as a tourist, I live in both countries alternately (although I avoid Australia and Coffs Harbour as much as is feasible).

    I don’t have a problem with traffic lights not being natural. I ride a bicycle and have never driven a car in my life – I do have a problem with cars and roads not being natural or healthy (for people, for animals, and for the planet).

    In Australia there is a word wowser. I’m somewhere on the far side of wowser, and it turns out to work very well as a lifestyle.

  11. Contraception.

    There are forms of birth control and family planning which do not involve interventions such as pills, devices or abortions.

    In Samoa abortion and divorce are both uncommon. And surplus babies are given to relatives with room for them.

    Samoa being insignificant, besides that, approximately half of Australian marriages lead to divorce, a form of radical family planning, and I would speculate that after 10 to 20 years of marriage a lot of couples do not sleep in the same bedroom, which is yet another (natural) form of family “planning” (sic).

  12. … I don’t think I’ll ever tire of joking about synchronicities so thanks for that, Donald T.

    While sex of course sometimes leads to reproduction, statistically speaking, one could say it usually doesn’t. (I think that why its funny when kidsjoke that their parents only had sex a corresponding number of times to how many children they have. Sexuality is about far more than reproducing, if its about reproducing at all. A wide range of sexual preferences and lifestyle (excluding pedophilia) is completely normal.

    As for childrearing, that’s obviously done (in varying degrees) by people other than biological parents. One does not need to have produced a child in order to raise a child, or contribute to the raising of a child.

  13. There was a road statistic left in a plastic bag at the front door by a neighbour this morning, sometime during the past 2 hours. It was one of the many local blue-tongued lizards, about 30cm long, medium sized, killed by a car. People in cars don’t get to see the amount of dead fauna that bicyclists see (as mostly the dead animals are partly hidden off the road in the grass/undergrowth.)

  14. Yep, another great blog post, Yakaru. I had to check if it was really a new one or a glitch when I saw there were already 13 comments.

    I would encourage anyone who uses the natural-unnatural dichotomy in their moral code to think again. Essentially it is based on the idea that things of human origin are unnatural (or they are when beyond some non-specific technological complexity). It is a false dichotomy, because humans are part of the natural world just like any other animal, even though we happen to have taken tool use and language and culture to extraordinary levels. It is a “natural” assumption to make, but doesn’t stand up to critical thinking. It is dangerous, because if one doesn’t realise that it is false, it can stop one making a moral assessment on more valid criteria. Yakaru’s challenge to Donald, “what’s the harm?” is one such (the only?) criterion.

    And if we don’t make moral assessments carefully, there is the ever-present danger of merely excusing our emotionally-based prejudices. It is illegitimate (pardon the pun) to consider homosexuality bad because in order to produce a child one person has to be “redundant”. As has been pointed out, this assumes that the proper function of sex must be reproduction, and prescribes for those involved how they should feel (relevant or redundant) in that process. While there may be some danger of harm in such a relationship, we can assume that those involved are adults who can make up their own minds, and it is nothing compared to the harm caused even by suggesting that homosexuals should not indulge their natural inclination. And if one still considers it an unnatural act, be aware that there are many examples of homosexuality in the animal kingdom.

    The same refutation applies to promiscuity. Bonobos mediate virtually all their daily social interactions with copulation and other sexual acts. Are they unnatural animals?

    Anyone who understands evolution at a reasonably deep level has noticed that there is no fundamental difference (in terms of naturalness) between the human realm and the “natural world”. Metal and plastic are no less natural than rock and wood. Humans extracting fossil trees (oil) from the ground and processing them into plastic, and a chimp stripping the leaves off a twig to dip into a termites’ nest are different complexities of tool use, although of course one might reasonably (but still approximately) define a level of technology for the cut-off in one’s personal definition of “natural”.

    But it would still be silly and dangerous to use naturalness as a measure of morality, since animals routinely engage in rape, murder, parasitisation, “clan warfare”, infanticide, patricide, “torture” (causing unnecessary suffering), and probably – though I’ve not checked this – paedophilia. This is the bloody nature out of which human societies emerged, still engaging in these because they were of evolutionary advantage.

    If there is anything at all that is truly unnatural (= uniquely human), it might be that we have an emergent property called formal reasoning, including moral reasoning, and have gradually reduced our “perfectly natural” savagery. And as we learn more and more that we are an integral part of the natural world, we extend our care (try to avoid harm) to a wider and wider environment, perhaps because we are more moral, or perhaps because it has become the new evolutionary imperitive. It is no longer of evolutionary advantage to conquer and exploit, since it damages our chances of “survival” (reproduction).

    Perhaps these are the same thing. Maybe evolutionary advantage, from a scientific perspective, is what “moral” actually means, if we dared look at the question with detachment. If so, it would have the neat corollary that human morality isn’t a unique bit of “unnaturalness” either – everything is just a product of evolution. And if that’s true, is artificial intelligence natural? If evolution of primordial soup led to a race of super-intelligent silicon robots, via us, can we say that’s not a natural process? I suppose we can ask them what they think about that when they get here.

  15. If everyone was to use contraception all the time humanity would die out from the lack of babies. In China, they face a demographic challenge in that in coming decades the one child policy will result in an overload of elderly retired Chinese compared with the number of working age Chinese.
    With abortion, the harm in it is that an incomplete unborn baby gets killed.
    With smoking the harm is that you might end up with deadly ailments such as lung cancer, throat cancer, or emphysema.
    With drinking alcoholic beverages you can get cirrhosis (?) of the liver, alcoholism, drunk & disorderly behaviour, car crashes etc…
    Personally I don’t drink tea or coffee either, but I do drink lemonade and the problem with lemonade is the excessive sugar in it.

    I think the last time I was in a car, as a passenger, was during the second week of November.

    The last victim of a car was left at the front door of this house this morning.

    The former mayor of Coffs Harbour “JLBS” – who I think would be among those Yakaru reports would like to bulldoze the settlement of the shy people – once opined (i.e. JLBS said at a municipal council meeting) that koalas should only live on the western (inland) side of the Pacific Highway (to avoid getting killed by cars when they crossed the highway – they would not need to cross the highway if they kept out of the trees to the east – dumb animals.)

    The plane flights produce greenhouse gases, in my case 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 tonnes per annum, and I suspect that has something to do with the sea now toppling trees onto the beach over a stretch of about 600 metres of 1100 metres (55%), where 40 years ago there were 15 metres of grassy dunes between the edge of the beach and the treeline.

    When I live in this house I use between 4 and 6 units of electricity per day from the 240 volt grid, whereas on the ship I use about 2 units per month. The annual diesel consumption of the ship varies between 30 and 160 litres. If I put myself to it, it is possible to travel 100 km in a day, moving 10 tonnes, and use something like 50cc of diesel, just during undocking and docking.

    I take aspirin or paracetamol occasionally but I boycott the healthcare system. Strangely I do not look my age, nor does Anita.

    My late father died in [1990] from side effects of the medication he was prescribed.

    There’s also no harm in being unemployed, but if everyone did that we would soon all starve.

    I have avoided going further than that as there are indications the thought police are offended by some of my (bigoted ?) opinions.

    Three months ago, and again two weeks ago, I was asked to write an article (then a second article) for the museum magazine, but the fairy story I produced 2-3 months ago had to be rejected because many of the museum’s 120 odd members are local fishermen, mostly ex-fishermen as they are an elderly dying breed, with only about 35 fishing boats left, with their children having no future in the Danish fishing industry (which has been decimated). The museum treasurer was fearful of the cost in terms of lost membership fees if the fairy story was published. Up to about 25 000 kroner per annum at risk.

    In a way, the story behind the suporession of the fairy story is a good and true story in itself.

    Similarly, in the German railway group /internet forum where I participate, there is a firm rule that no postings may refer to the third reich. The then German Reichsbahn (railway corporation) was complicit in the transportation of people to extermination camps – passengers/prisoners were billed single tickets, whereas guards were billed return tickets. The government paid the railway for its services. We are not allowed to mention anything of this period because it may offend the sensibilities of German members of the forum.

  16. I agree with lettersquash that natural/unnatural is a false dichotomy, and as a basis for morality brings with it innumerable problems. Plane flight has environmental consequences, but these are not because it is unnatural. Volcanoes are also destructive, but they are natural. Bashing someone to death with a rock is clearly natural behavior, too.

    Homosexuality is clearly as natural as the rest of human sexuality, but even if it was unnatural, it wouldn’t make it immoral. Rape is natural, pedophilia (as LS points out) is probably natural (or genetically influenced) in at least some cases. Natural doesn’t equal moral, anymore than unnatural equals immoral.

    I think you might be over-extending your personal tastes here a bit, Donald. I don’t think any thought police are trying to take away your right to express your personal tastes in any matters, but to say that homosexuality is immoral, you would need more than just your personal taste to back it up.

  17. The problem of “if everyone did it” reasoning is that it doesn’t apply in this case. Different people have different urges and different preferences. Humans are diverse. Diversity is our strength. Forcing everyone into a heterosexual marriage against their will would be bad because it’d produce lots of children from people who aren’t ready for them, simply aren’t suited for raising children, and/or in loveless marriages that lead to dysfunctional families. Assuming that an approach is only viable if everyone did it entirely misses the point of our diversity, specialization, and individuality. We aren’t insects. We don’t all have to do things the same way to sustain our population.

    I despise it when people tell me that I’m inherently wrong about wanting to live my life my way instead of some sitcom ideal. I can’t force myself to love someone out of some perverted sense of duty to my genes. I don’t want to cheapen marriage like that. Some people, like me, are different, and society has to learn to accept that. I am tremendously glad that I have very accepting parents who don’t instantly change the topic to marriage the moment I mention a woman my age. I can only imagine how many failed marriages out there originated from the neurotic meme that everyone must be married or treated as a failure at life.

  18. Donald, in case I’m one of the thought police you think might object if you say more, please try to be reasonable. I am not policing your thoughts or written statements in any way. I have critiqued some of your opinions. I have expressed a different set of opinions, which anyone is free to critique. You are also free to critique my critique, or ignore it, or complain that I’m policing your thoughts.

    I don’t criticise everything you say, and I don’t intend to. I appreciate your posting here, and I agree with some of your points. I will criticise anything that I feel I should or want to, however, unless Yakaru objects. I’m also open to discussing something in private if you prefer (or if Yakaru asks us to). I don’t want to fall out with anyone, but I will sometimes challenge people’s opinions. If they are good opinions, I trust that I will be corrected, I will learn something and the original opinion will survive and prosper.

    “If everyone was to use contraception all the time humanity would die out from the lack of babies.” – Very probably, but did anyone suggest that everyone must use contraception all the time? You said you don’t regard it as healthy, and gave very little indication of any leeway on that. When people began to challenge this view, you responded: “There are forms of birth control and family planning which do not involve interventions such as pills, devices or abortions”, again suggesting that the latter type you consider “unhealthy”. But of course, if everyone used these acceptable-to-you methods all the time, humanity would die out from the lack of babies just the same. Many (including you, apparently) believe that the world population is too high, so encouraging them where little harm seems to follow from it would be a good thing.

    Your argument is not a million miles away from that of the Catholic Church. The harm done by decrying the use of condoms and other “unnatural” contraceptives has been immense, IMO, although one can always blame the sufferers for having sex despite not having access to condoms or the pill. If you would like to defend that opinion, please go ahead.

    “In China, they face a demographic challenge in that in coming decades the one child policy will result in an overload of elderly retired Chinese compared with the number of working age Chinese.” – I’m not sure of my maths, but I rather think that by the one child policy they have kept the Chinese population in check much better than elsewhere, which means that they will have less of a burden from elderly retired people than elsewhere as we reduce our birth rates. We who had a baby boom will have much more of that, indeed we already do.

    If we have overpopulated the planet as a whole (ignoring local differences), stopping overpopulating it must involve temporary stress from that problem (unless we encourage euthanasia or make soylent green out of the wrinklies). I believe there may be a lot of solutions in the pipeline, if we can develop them. The elderly might become a lot healthier for longer and want to be employed, or even do semi-voluntary work in exchange for their care. Voluntary euthanasia might become more common (also saving some suffering). If we could overhaul some of the worst excesses of capitalist greed, a great many problems could be solved.

    As for global warming, personally I’m starting to think we’re past the tipping point, and need to start working on carbon sequestration as well as reducing CO2 production. I commend you for being aware of your carbon footprint and trying to minimise it. I do too. It’s all relative – pretty well everyone in the developed world is vastly rich and wasteful and colluding in that at the expense of the starving. But we can each try to do as much as we feel able to change that.

  19. I am wondering where it was that I wrote that homosexuality was immoral ?

    The two words I used were unnatural and unhealthy, I think.

    In regards to contraception, I think I was being asked what harm there is in it.

    I think the one child policy is a suitable example of harm.

    But the follow-up to my example of harm was a comment that appears to have re-worded with the word immoral what I originally wrote about another issue, without using the word immoral.

    I’d rather get back to the topic of redefining spirituality.

    Points I would like to iterate are that:

    1. I am not the first nor only person to use spirituality in a non-religious sense or context.

    2. Spirituality appears to have been coined by Catholics, and the first recorded written example of its use and meaning was in [1441] (or -CCCL if you don’t like Catholic conventions in the calendar). That first definition defined it as meaning “the clergy”.

    3. Within about 15 years spirituality was redefined (presumably by Catholics, again) to mean money raised by or for the church.

    4. After another 50 years or so it was re-redefined, again by Catholics, into a more edifying woo ? meaning.

    5. Over succeeding centuries it was used in more re-re-redefined ways by various denominations and I guess at some stage atheists or agnostics picked it up too.

    I am now told here that if I redefine the word spirituality I am corrupting the definition. I am advised not to bridle against the conventional meaning nor should I corrupt it. My defence would be that I do not consider I am corrupting the meaning. The people who corrupted it were the Catholics in about 1456.

    The original definition “the clergy” was self-serving by the clergy & inappropriate.

    The second re-minting of the coinage so that spirituality meant revenue (money) was the corruption.

    The third meaning was a correction of the first two mistaken and defective meanings. The third meaning was an improvement on the first two interim meanings.

    In my mind though, I am not going to let a religion which takes three attempts to settle on a permanent meaning of a conceptual word (and at the same time a religion which woo-ishly claims God exists and created everything) be the authority for what a word means, even if they invented the word. That they re-define twice it suggests to me they are not particularly erudite & not qualified to be in the business of generating new English vocabulary.

    It’s easy to make retrospectivefun of things people put in writing, it works well on the internet because these blogs are a textual written medium.

    If I quote historical details from the SOED, it is a mistake to remark that I am ‘probably right’. It is the SOED which is ‘probably right’, not me.

  20. Sorry, I probably just broke your phone. :(

  21. @lettersquash

    Are you kidding about breaking the phone ? Because it did just inexplicably zap my incomplete demographics response. I will stylus it again. To follow next.

  22. @Donald,
    You commented that homosexuality is both unnatural and unhealthy. Unnatural certainly has some moral connotations, and as the post is about religious morality, I assumed you were also taking a moral angle on it. If you weren’t, I’m not sure why you would have posted that comment here.

    In general, I don’t mind if arguments range over side topics here, but try not to repeat stuff too much.

  23. Chinese demographics.

    There are two distinct but inter-relateddemographic problems for China.

    1. Over-population, about 1.2 to 1.5 billion Chinese. That is the obvious immediate problem. But that is not what I was writing about vis-a-vis the one child policy. The one child policy is designed to limit the population of China, stop it growing. The second problem is subtle, and long term, not immediate.

    2. The population pyramid. The one child policy creates this new problem after solving the first problem.


    That is meant to diagramatise how the older people at the top are fewer than the younger people towards the base. (ignore the dots, the distance between a / and a \ represents the number of people in successive cohorts of age groups, like 10-20 year olds, 20-30 year olds):

    In China it will get like this

    Elderly at top
    Children at base.
    Then it will get like this


    The pyramid in China will get higher as old people live longer, the base will get narrower over decades as the ration of children to adults decreases. The middle of the pyramid will also nartow over decades. It is likely that the working people in the middle of the pyramid will be insufficient to support the dependant elderly (the fundamental crisis) at the apex and dependant children at the base (by themselves the children are not the ultimate problem.)

    This was a foreseeable & foreseen problem.

    Something else, most people would say I am not married, although I would disagree with most people (it’s a long story). So unsubstantiated theories I am forcing people to live a heterosexual married lifestyle are amusingly misplaced and ignorant of my domestic situation. Doh.

  24. Please, no more discussion of demographics in China. Just stuff that’s directly relevant to the topics in the post.

  25. In my opinion air travel, is un-natural – for humans. I think I have narrower definitions of words than most other people. So I use “natural” in a narrower sense than others. The things which naturally fly are birds.

    That precision in definition would also apply for the word morality. To me morality is a set of values. Different people have different moralities. For me to marry another man would be immoral, but for two homosexual man to have a “civil union” could be moral for them, while not being so in my eyes. I try to think, speak and do all in harmony with a personal morality I follow. My own moral code is in part to try to take a natural ecologically sustainable route. I am not a Luddite. Luddites might have a different moral code. Corporate executives either do or do not have a moral code, and if they do it would not resemble mine.

    I sometimes, or very seldom, come across a person who says or does something that suddenly forces a revision and improvement on my part, morally.

    My morality is nearly identical with the (professed ?) morality of the late Pope. Although I got there by reason, not by intuition and (largely) not via Jesus, although I attended a Protestant high school for 6 years it was under a scholarship, not by paying for enrolment and not by seeking out a Protestant school, I just happened to sit the exam for two such schools because my mother was ambitious for me and then I won something, and I was at a theological college four years as a resident non-theological student because a relative was the bishop who was vice principal of the college. It was a family connection not a religious link.

    There’s a lot of diverse influences on my moral outlook, rather more than indicated here.

    Anyway I will go back to sleep, for a while.

  26. Donald, I did realise that I was emphasising “moral” rather than “healthy” or “natural”, but thought the implication was clear. If it was not your meaning to suggest that homosexuality or the use of contraception, etc., are immoral, then I’m sorry to misunderstand your position. I have wondered lately whether I make enough allowance for the possibility that English is not your first language. Is that the case?

    On the other hand, and pardon me for saying this, some of your text suggests that I should reserve judgement on whether you actually meant to imply a moral judgement or not. I find it odd that you would make such a distinction, and not clarify it.

    Perhaps you could help by explaining what your criteria for morality are, if not health (in the broadest sense). Health, I would strongly suggest, includes not having harm caused to one. And this is almost ubiquitously understood as the main criterion for judging morality – not causing harm. Do you see the problem I might be having believing that you didn’t imply a moral judgement, despite only using the words “healthy” and “natural”?

    In case you missed it, I have made my position quite clear on the definition and redefinition of “spirituality” (which is that it is a matter of personal preference), although I’m afraid you’re still not making sense. For instance, when you say “The second re-minting of the coinage so that spirituality meant revenue (money) was the corruption. The people who corrupted it were the Catholics in about 1456”, this implies that the Church’s original meaning was correct, although you describe that as “self-serving & inappropriate”. If you complain that you are harshly judged for corrupting the meaning of the latest incarnation of it, I’m not sure how the Church’s redefinition was a corruption (especially if it was theirs to redefine as they please). As it happens, “corruption” is often used in etymology without intending any judgement. However, my judgement of those who redefine “something of the spirit” into “vague feelings of nice-itude” or something more specific was that it drives a wedge in the logical etymological connection of the word with its root, “spirit”, which seems unwise and unnecessary, as I have explained adequately.

  27. Sorry, I tried to coax it back to spirituality, two or three messages back, but the next thing missed that and diverted me back to artificial population controls (code for something I was asked about the harm of, by someone I need not identify).

    Anyway there’s only a handful of us reading and writing these posts.

  28. @Donald,
    You have missed the point of this discussion. This is not a general inquiry about what your personal morality is, nor how you came to hold it. I was expecting you to have a reasoned argument for your views, and you haven’t presented that. For my tastes, the discussion of your views on the above topics has been carried out fully enough and can end now. Thanks.

  29. Morality (I think, and I am native speaker of English) is a set of values concerned with ethics, rules of conduct, fables, virtue and vice. – From the SOED again.

    Morality, the meaning of the word, is not a matter of not doing harm. I am not sure where the claim of ubiquitousness/ubiquity for “not doing harm” stems from, I don’t see any evidence of it in the SOED definitions.

    I am being judgmental. Also I think “good” is not interchangeable as a word with the phrase “not doing harm”.

    To a few people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Christian), has not the same meaning as “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” (Buddhist).

    In India abortion is illegal whereas in Japan abortion is legal (unborn ‘babies’ (sic ?) are killed). In Japan widow burning is illegal whereas in India (up to 250 years ago) it was legal and “virtuous”, wives were killed. The widows were harmed, but that was the morality of the culture.
    In Samoan culture homosexuality is treated as normal (but only in regards to males, in the case of females there is no word for it in tne Samoan language and Lesbianism was an unknown behaviour, at least up as long as I involved with Samoa, [1986]-[2004]) whereas in England up to 60 years ago to be an active homosexual was a criminal offence.
    Homosexuality among Samoan fa’afafine is actively exploited by heterosexual Samoans, the fa’afafine are more exploited and abused by heterosexual Samoan males than by heterosexual Samoan females.

    Sorry, I had to answer some further misconstructions of English language usages of words, but I now will retire from future explorations here to avoid muddying the waters, although maybe the waters were muddy to begin with a la the Catholic routine of musical chairs with the word spirituality.

  30. I’ve been thinking a bit more about this list and whether there are any other things that feed into religious belief. I think there are a couple of things.

    One is feelings of personal power or the actual exercise of power. I have often imagined that the origins of religious belief were probably down to this fundamental boost to courage, risk-taking and arrogance, which would have been of evolutionary advantage in battling other tribes (and it encourages self-sacrifice for the group in many ways, many of them central to human cultures). Being a magical power, it is personally exciting and awe-inspiring to imagine that you share in it and practise it.

    Newage philosophies really milk this like crazy, saying that you can do and be anything, and encouraging you to ignore doubts, threats and the views of sceptics.

    Another factor might be the sense of belonging to a community of like-minded people, being part of shared, ancient traditions, having trusted friends to call on, etc.

    On the issue of Life After Death, the fundamental point is that this belief helps to assuage our fears of death, loss and the unknown.

    These three act together with the seductive message: if you come into the fold, you can share the immense power and protection of god, your community will support you in this life, and you’ll have salvation in death too. What’s not to like?

    The item I was most surprised about was the sublimation of male sexual guilt, if that’s the right idea. The evidence points in that direction, but I have yet to get my head round it completely. Why would women not have sexual guilt, or is it just that their feelings about it were irrelevant because they were disempowered by the male priesthood? Why would men not make a great virtue of sex rather than frown on it (for their own pleasure and from an evolutionary perspective – women, after all, are biologically inclined to monogamy and periodic abstinence, men to rampant polygamy)?

    Could it be that male priests began to preach celibacy to discourage other MEN (although blaming the seductiveness of women), pretending they would also practise it (indeed, set an example), while secretly or shamefacedly procreating, thus enjoying a biological advantage (the history of priests openly frequenting brothels until relatively recent times would bear this out)?

    There’s a not-uncommon pattern among newage religious cults that set up communes of the leader gradually collecting a harem of women around him and, through manipulation, making it the norm that he should have lots of sex and/or father lots of children while everybody else is sent to do the communal chores, including bringing up his kids.

    Are we biased by the prominence of Judeo-Christian morality, and ignoring religions in which sex is/was encouraged? What about religions worshipping goddesses, or just an Earth Mother? Maybe it’s just rather complicated, and different religions exploit(ed) sexuality in different ways. About time they stopped though!

  31. Yep, those extra ones certainly belong on that list.

    The issue of sex is of course extremely complex, and I pulled a rather long bow to try and hit a fairly distant target surrounded by fog which may not be there.

    As the complex cultural stuff around sex & religion (which you mention, and which I ignored in the post but should have at least hinted at), there seems to me to be some difficulties in male sexuality itself. I think even “alpha” males can feel insecure VERY quickly, if their performance is seen to be poor, or if they lose a partner to someone else.

    Any mismatch between (perceived) sexual status and real political power is going to cause difficulties for males for this reason. I’d blame it all on religion if it weren’t for the behavior of non-religious males towards women. There’s an ongoing feud in the online atheist community about men’s rights to sexually insult women. I’m sure the psychology behind that is having so much fear of not being able to satisfy a woman sexually that the men want to turn sex into an aggressive act where the woman’s experience is disregarded.

    I also had a recent experience where a female superior at work attacked me quite unjustly. On reflection, I noticed part of my feelings were humiliation at having been “put down” by someone weaker than me. No doubt there’s plenty of Australian conditioning in there too, but it would also match up with the male feeling of being physically stronger.

    In short, I suspect that if religion and its evils were expunged from a society, the males therein would still have to learn how to shut up and listen without either shouting or dying of shock at what they hear.

    I really should have indicated more in the post about the New Age and sexuality. The worst abuses I’ve encountered have been as a result of New Age groups drawing people with backgrounds of childhood sexual abuse, who then get exploited by “therapists” or gurus.

    Some of the harem situations though seem as much driven by women as by the male guru, from what I’ve encountered….

    This is a huge topic, and maybe I should write something more specific about it….

    See also Bronze Dog’s recent posts:



  32. Are women biologically inclined to monogamy? I’m not convinced. I have not studied this subject in depth and am interested in any convincing that could be done.

    I’m working on a post about sexuality and how new age teachings don’t really help people sort out their natural inclinations from programming influenced directly or indirectly by traditional religions. On the surface, some new age teachings seem to be liberating, and I suppose they potentially could be, but a review of Internet discussions by “followers” shows me that these followers are still confused.

    I’ve been looking at the SOI-R, a measure of sociosexual orientation, which looks at three things with regards to casual sexual interactions and multiple partners- a person’s behavior, attitude, and desire. http://www.larspenke.eu/soi-r/index.html

    In terms of actual behavior, no difference was found among men or women. Women engage in casual sexual relationships and have multiple partners as often as men. (Slightly more, actually, if you take a look at the norms.) In terms of attitude towards and desire for casual sexual relationships, there are differences. Men seem to have a more open attitude towards and desire more casual sexual interactions. I find it interesting that desire and attitude are different, but behavior is not! And of course there are ranges and variations.

  33. Yep, it’s thorny territory, and worth noting that whatever instinctive or physiological tendencies one wishes to argue for, sexuality always has important cultural influences, and enormous individual differences, as well as possibly great fluctuations throughout an individuals biography.

    Females of most species could be said to have a greater “investment” in the sex act (given the possibility of childbearing), and are more likely to have evolved tendencies to restrict mating behavior. Possibly this is also true for human females, but if so, contraception and equal rights makes it easier for women to make more deliberate choices.

    The essential point though, is that regardless of culture, there’s plenty of individual variation in sexual behavior thanks purely to biology. New age teachings about sexuality, while often of a fairly liberal temperament, often have very silly and prescriptive implications.

  34. @Mariah, I was just posting what I think is fairly standard theory, if memory serves (which isn’t that likely!). I’m talking about the legacy of our evolutionary history, which your research would suggest might not be having much influence now. I’m a bit prone to judging things on evolutionary principles at the moment.

    I’ll dare to say how I think the theory goes before checking my facts. A female invests a lot of energy into gestation, feeding and (particularly traditionally) child rearing, so from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to choose a mate carefully, whom she thinks will be a good provider (hence preference for big, strong, athletic males). I also saw something about women prefering men with high risk-taking behaviours (a recent bit of research), which was explained in terms of them being likely to catch dinner, even if it bites. In primitive societies in particular, incidence of a male moving on to a new female could potentially leave a woman without her main hunter and protector, endangering the life of the child. This would be moderated by collective responsibility and shared care-giving, however (e.g. by older women and siblings). The issue is the probability of the mother’s genes being passed on to children who survive to child-bearing age. If the father is a stayer, that tends to make her monogamous by default, since he’s there in the hut. If she took the benefits of her main relationship, but also had children with other men, her partner would be investing energy hunting for, and protecting, less-closely related children. Indeed, this might also be another reason for male resentment and false morality regarding women’s sexuality – they should only get seductive in private, and he often has the physical strength to enforce that.

    A man, on the other hand, in terms of the survival of his genes, gains little from mating with the same woman. There is, I think, a natural benefit to be had by polygamous reproduction, in that it is always your own genes that you’re passing on, but they cross with several partners’ genes, improving the genetic diversity of the children.

    I’m not sure of any of this. I’m even less sure whether the small number of eggs compared to the almost limitless production of sperm has an effect, but I have a vague feeling this may be the case. I would guess, though, that the length of pregnancy and shortness of reproductive age would make each mating a high risk for a woman, where the man risks little.

    Now I’ll have to learn some biology and see how well I did! Of course, it raises the question of how much we transcend our genetic programming, but there are lots of examples of where we haven’t, even though we think we’re much too civilised to be subject to evolutionary pressures now. I’m glad you asked, thanks.

  35. That’s my understanding too. Main thing is not to carried away with it (not saying you did, LS!). This all has to do with the general setting of the “biological thermostat”, and it’s highly speculative and non-prescriptive when it comes to actual behavior.

    I know of one guru, for example, who claims that men can be polygamous because they can impregnate multiple women, while women can only be pregnant from one man. So he uses that teaching to get lots of girlfriends.

    However one could just as easily argue that women, with their unusually (for mammals) invisible fertility cycle, are designed to have lots of male lovers, all of whom should assume fatherhood of any children.

  36. It also depends on how monogamy is used. It’s commonly used to mean one partner at a time, but a stricter definition would mean one partner for a lifetime. I can’t fathom a pre-disposition to that! :) (In seriousness and in jest.)

  37. Nice blog Yakaru, a great place for some discussion where I can learn a few things and pick up some subjects for consideration in my own views.
    Years ago a friend of mine was receiving quite a telling-off and punch in the arm from his girlfriend for occasionally exclaiming, “God!”, in amongst his words.
    Not knowing the girl well I asked her some simple and polite questions regarding her religious beliefs (or variations thereof).
    When I mentioned the massive number of religions, gods, faiths and beliefs – most of which are circumstantial depending on country, parents and other influences, she sensed my world view and explained, “I’m not real religious, I just know that god’s real”.
    I said, “Let me guess, this god that you know is real, he happens to be almost identical to the god of christianity, doesn’t he?”
    She knew I was thinking of her reaction to the blasphemy occasionally worded by my friend and admitted, “Yes”.
    Not quite ready to let it go I continued, “Do you believe and support all of this (almost identical to christianity) god’s revelations or just some.
    “Just some”, she chirped and I smiled with a wink and let it go at that.

    There’s something I don’t like about this. Don’t get me wrong, she was a nice and decent person. But taking just some strange rules from a strange apocalyptic religion that grew from primitive culture and lifestyle, from an even more primitive god’s code, and including them in a more modern ‘spiritual’ view is a cherry-picking style that doesn’t sit well in my mind.
    I know the appeal of religion, the benefits, feelings of belonging and being part of a special group and all that crap. Yet I still find myself asking WHY?
    Can people dismiss much of the hard-core, incredibly unpleasant codes of a religion to include just some of it in their New-Age beliefs and still gain from it?
    If anyone understands my confusion, I’m keen to know what you

  38. Thanks, Woody.
    re your question:
    I’d see it more as your friend following socially learned rules, with little concern for where they came from. UN-learning is a skill not taught in schools, and some kind of psychological inertia makes it easier to believe than to question. Questioning is usually only the result of pain, or in some cases, genuine curiosity.

    A general note to commenters — I’m quite happy to have tangential discussions here occasionally, and questions like Woody’s above are fine, but please try to keep such things fairly brief.

  39. @Woody, great question – “WHY?”! I think the big one is fear. We are all invested in our world view, and it is threatening to challenge it. It’s a deep psychological defence, which takes determination and patience to even reduce. I feel this mild fear whenever I contemplate the possibility that I was wrong to turn away from mysticism (even though I try to think of these sorts of things to remain open-minded). That’s about having to do a u-turn, re-align myself socially, explain to friends my new philosophy (again!), and I might feel foolish. I might also have waves of emotion washing over me as I sit and re-establish my “relationship” with “god”. I quite enjoy my cool-headedness and lack of guilt, religious passion, or whatever. I’m still bemused by the depth of some people’s cherry-picking, but maybe it indicates how much they depend on the emotional support their beliefs give them. I think it’s one reason why it’s good for atheist-agnostic people to be patient and kind as we challenge religious people’s beliefs (as you were). Being too harsh increases their fear, makes them dig their heels in, and gives them an excuse to imagine they are morally superior thanks to their beliefs.

  40. I love this question of cherry-picking. You’re right, Woody, it doesn’t really make sense. Thinking about my days as a “believer” I’d say I was a cherry-picker, for a couple of reasons. One, I had a sincere desire to know God. Some of my cherry-picking was rejecting things that just couldn’t be true. The other factor would be that “religion” messes with our critical thinking skills in some areas, while leaving them intact in other areas. So I may have believed in a virgin birth or resurrection from the dead, for example, but found it completely illogical that God would send anyone to hell. That could have been viewed as cherry-picking but was really just that my critical thinking was only partially impaired.

    I agree, LS, sensitivity goes a long way. Being called an idiot (for example) doesn’t help! As Yakaru knows, I tried to find my way through the anti-vax maze and being called an idiot by those who are “pro-vax” or “not anti-vax” didn’t help.

    Getting back to cherry-picking and religion, I’d say most are not aware they’re doing it.

  41. Socially learned rules with little regard to where they came from…yes!

    And that why this post is so fantastic, even if it inspires off-topic comments! We can certainly take a look at what we are like as humans, and what life is like, and see how religion makes sense. It’s a good part of the questioning and the un-learning.

  42. I wanted to say that cherry-picking is ENCOURAGED by some new age teachers, I’d go so far as to say this applies to the most fraudulent ones, but that’s my opinion. Anyway, they say (and followers embrace this) “Just take from my teachings whatever resonates with you. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s not for you.”

    Nice way to kill that critical thinking impulse. That teaching “doesn’t resonate” not because it’s complete BS, but because it’s not for me!

    (I sense a blog post was just conceived.)

  43. I went through my own phase of more explicit cherrypicking, generally discarding the parts of the Bible that didn’t conform to my idea of a good god. I went into the typical “spiritual but not religious” phase when I became more aware that there was just too much barbarism in the Bible to take it seriously. I suppose one good thing about living in Texas was that I didn’t have much opportunity to encounter newage culture, so I had a lot of time to think about the religious questions on my own. Having an open-minded family certainly helped.

    I did have some encounters online during a phase when Wicca was in the media spotlight, though I kind of got weirded out a little when they’d get in arguments with Christian fundies. I vaguely remember some kind of rhetorical judo that involved their rules of magic. It struck me as kind of similar to how Christians would pull out Bible verses to argue that doing good was evil, therefore any good non-Christian was up to some unspecified evil and their good actions were proof of deception. Real circular stuff. The Wiccans in question didn’t come off as directly nasty, but kind of haughty or passive-aggressive about how their brand of karma would come back to bite their critics times three or something like that.

  44. Exactly, Bronze Dog- God must be good, and that’s not good, so that can’t be right.

    Although I didn’t discard all of the heinous things God did, I just realized! What a crazy book the Bible is!

  45. That’s why the religious and New Agers are all trying to co-opt science. They realize that they’re standing on quicksand when trying to argue with other arbitrary belief systems, and have noticed that if science “proves” something, then you’re not allowed to argue with it. What they don’t see is the number of pet theories that get demolished, and careers that have gone down the drain pursuing what turn out to be blind alleys.

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