Articles/Essays


Someone asked me the other day if I was still doing motivational speaking. I cringed. I’ve never done motivational speaking; I actually despise the term—as well as the whole notion that we need more external pressure and “motivation.” Being a motivational speaker is something I never aspire to be, even in my new effort to subsist on the kindness of others as a non-religious minister; but that said, I do aspire to be a demotivational speaker, and I’d like to share with you why that is the case.

First, a paragraph of disclaimers: I don’t hate money; I like money. Accumulating it was once a primary goal for me (and the reversal of that philosophy may have been a giant mistake I am rationalizing here). I also know that money isn’t inherently good or bad; money doesn’t kill people, people kill people. I know there are warm and wonderful families involved in travel sports. Yes, we need to be realistic and earn a living. No, not everyone should study the philosophy of wealth redistribution, sit and meditate, or follow Jesus’ commandment to the disciples to toss off all their worldly possessions and follow him to do cultic work (such broad neo-stoicism could destroy lives and make the world worse off). Yes, ambition helps us to survive and thrive. Yes, ambitious hyper people create great jobs, and produce much that benefits society.

Note however that most of these ambitious types are motivated from within, intrinsically. Our mistake is in thinking we should push harder to motivate others from the outside, that it works, and that the outcome is happiness.

Problems with Extrinsic Motivation

 

If I tell you that you need to get motivated today, what comes to mind?  My guess is that your mind doesn’t jump to meditation, philosophy, religion, meaning, compassion, reading a good book, charity, quiet time, enrichment, or a stroll through the park to smell the roses or figure out how to better feed or care for the hungry. Does it?

If we are honest about it, we must admit that when our achievement-obsessed society conventionally talks about “motivation,” we are talking about pursuit of greater material wealth, status, recognition, and achievement that is heavily based upon the external assessments of others—not our intrinsic sense of wellbeing; it’s not cool to subsist, no matter how centered, happy, and “at peace” it makes you. When we talk of achievement, we are not talking about experiencing the depth of our humanity, investing in human relationships, finding internal peace, finding profound meaning through our connection with other living things, discovering our core self, finding our bliss (to use Joseph Campbell’s words), or being self-aware about what intrinsically motivates us and gives our life meaning. Rather, we are talking about motivating people to play a game that evolution did not well equip them to play, one that many don’t really—deep in their hearts—even want to play, one that will likely require submitting to debt to play (if not  born to a well-off family), and one that can easily enslave them if they choose to play it. The unfortunate reality is that our quest for meaning and purpose in life often gets badly confused with our quest for material things, status, and recognition—much of which we cannot afford, and much of which results from external motivations and social forces that may not serve our happiness well.

Would you sacrifice your spouse and family, give up your mental health and edification, sacrifice the beauty of deep friendships or a social life for travel basketball? Have sleepless nights worrying about finances and payments on a second home? A boat?

Mom’s Advice Still Applies

 

Perhaps upon further reflection, ambition itself should not be immune from moderation and discipline, though it seems in our culture that often it is held as such. Perhaps like many sides of our human nature, ambition is an evolved trait—like egoism; self-centeredness; self-confidence; in-group, tribal bias; or being horny—which can present both a beneficial side, and a darker one. Maybe it is a trait that must be tamed and transcended in order for us to truly be all that we can be as people who are complete, whole, rounded, centered, loving, feeling, compassionate, alive, and fulfilled in our potential in the truest sense—not just the conventional and social sense. Maybe the highlighting of these attributes is yet another virtue of religious systems of thought that is underrated by we who are atheists?

The Case & the Costs

 

Yes, the Reverend Stephen L. Gibson has a mission to “improve the wellbeing of humanity through the promotion of social, emotional, and intellectual growth”; but no, I can’t see where any part of that mission could ever involve rah-rah “motivation”; embracing your personal power; thinking your way out of cancer; extolling a bulimia-inducing idolatry of thinness; violating our mothers’ advice for moderation in all things—to the extent I can’t eat what I want in reasonable portions; or offering sadistic advice that destroying your joints by pounding them on the pavement eight miles per day until you’re suicidal is somehow vital to your wellbeing—complete with the stress and dread of anticipating the next time you have to endure it.

To the contrary, I’d like to share a few additional thoughts about why furthering the hype of self-help and “motivation” is misguided, ineffective, and even destructive—at least in the way that our culture promotes, hypes, harps on, and defines success so heavily in material terms, and in terms of “achievement” (which is usually measured material terms). I will argue that through our obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, goods-chasing delusion about the nature of what motivates us and how we find meaning in life, we have sold ourselves a bill of goods. This has led to ever greater stress, perhaps even illness, and certainly to many death-bed regrets—at least until the economic music of our ponzi and debt-driven economy stops playing, at which time we might actually regain our sanity, even if by accidental necessity. Could this be the silver lining to what many predict is coming economically? 

Until then, Americans will continue to outwork even the Japanese, who coined the term “death by overwork”. Our “Tiger Moms” will insist that anything instrument other than piano is unacceptable … and that we must practice thirty-four hours per day, in between pounding our joints on the road and studying hard to get into Harvard. This comes despite emerging research from people like Bryan Caplan—who as in the audio interview here explains that good, emerging research indicates that regardless of parenting approach or degree of strictness, in the end genetics play a much larger role in “success.” Kids turn out the same either way—so we should bloody relax.

But instead, our fifth-generation immigrants (mutts like me) will insist that our kids should never have a moment to play with an erector set, chase butterflies, sell lemon-aide to merely a few kind strangers whilst reflecting on summer insects, or god-forbid be bored and pick up a Nancy Drew mystery. No, we true Americans play travel soccer while working with a summer tutor, spend every weekend on the road, and destroy marriages and organic family fun in the process. We believe our kids were born to be Olympic gymnasts (that gym owner listens to motivation speakers, by the way, and saw your gold card); we drive the family further into debt; run to music lessons after games; oh, and we structure any remaining time with over-the-top stimulation, travel, amusement parks, or entertainment. Of course there is a segment of society that can’t afford to live this travel-hockey way—but ignore them for a moment; everyone else does. 

As the rich clearly get richer and unknowingly enslave the shrinking middle class with college debt, consumer debt, mortgage debt, and any other form of debt through which the indentured crew can be driven to keep up and work harder and longer—while the companies wave their latest ultra-profitable gadgets in our eyes like a pedophile with candy, does it occur to us that this entire hamster-wheel, Prozac-laden existence plays right into the hands of the ultra-rich puppeteers? “Gotta re-inflate the debt bubble and get people spending again,” they keep telling us. But do we really?

Perspective 

 

We believe we need bigger houses, bigger toys, and bigger boats. Which reminds me of the story of the poor-but-content South American fisherman who lives a quiet and happy life with his wife near the sea. He is approached by a banker and told he can borrow money to buy more boats, and thus hire more people, to make more money, to buy a bigger house, in order to someday perhaps retire and fish quietly and contentedly, living happily with his wife, close to the sea. (Ahhh bankers; always trying to get a cut of everything by writing more loans.)

What happens to a child who has never been bored? What does that brain look like? How is it cheated? How are we taught to be self-sufficient with no time to think, read, create, write a play, make up a new sport, discover and discuss current events with the family, catch a funny-as-hell movie together, or watch a great TED lecture online? (See, I’m hardly a Luddite.) Are these really the great inventors and innovators of tomorrow, who will keep America alive and sustain its role as the great leader in creativity? What are we really teaching ourselves and our kids about this fragile, short span of time we call our lives? How could we possibly benefit from any more motivational speeches that extol the virtues of this type of extrinsic motivation, verses the intrinsic kind that Daniel H. Pink so clearly illustrates is behind real achievement?  (See Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)

You Know What Matters

 

What are we saying and teaching ourselves about human relationships, which are clearly the most important elements of life? If you disagree, just pause for a minute and picture a world where all humans are actually robots, who cannot talk or interact emotionally with you (I know you may have one or two co-workers for whom that description is a scary fit). You can do your job, but you can never have a human relationship with anyone—at work or at home. You have nobody to share thoughts with; nobody to celebrate your victories and mourn your losses with; nobody to snuggle with, laugh with, or socialize with. No kids to bother you. How would that feel?

Push come to shove, humans are social animals, and I am convinced that the greatest meaning we can derive from life would not exist but for our relationships with each other. And for that we don’t need more things, motivation, achievements, or distractions from life; we need fewer! We need to experience life. Honestly, is our behavior and “motivational” mindset teaching and affirming what we value most? Our connectedness? Our social time in the village? Or do we favor emails, toys we don’t have time to use, cottages that sit empty, and more keys and responsibility to more locks and obligations than we could ever possibly use?

The True Danger

 

The last one hundred years of industrial revolution have brought great things. The time since Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century set the stage for these amazing advances. The transition from hunter-gatherer (in a world whose entire population numbered only in the thousands of people) to city-dwellers with televisions, whose lives play out on top of human anthills, occurred just before that printing press—or electricity—was invented. And before all of that was over 99.99% of history! These times are new. Very new. Blind ambition and 24×7 stimulation are very new. They are unprecedented, and present amazing advances and opportunities. But our nature means they present pitfalls and dangers, and I can think of no pitfall greater than that of a wasted day, a wasted hour, or certainly a wasted life—spent chasing a game deep into the matrix. A false game at that! As if you’ve landed a staring role in “The Truman Show,” but won’t ever even realize it! 

It’s your life, if you are internally motivated to run 150 m.p.h. with your hair on fire, collecting things and running marathons and beating people at many games—even if you then give back 5% or 20%—I don’t care. Knock yourself out. I’m not against, you.  In fact if you are intrinsically motivated, I’m all for you! That’s your nature, your bliss, and that’s great! But don’t assume everyone should be like you, or could be so driven.

For these reasons I am rethinking my own participation in this culture of material success. I, for one, am plenty full of extrinsic pressure, self-help, motivational speeches, and plain old empty nonsense. Yes, there is a time and place for inspiration, and sometimes a slight push from the external world can help you discover an intrinsic spark that turns to a flame. But that’s more Hollywood than reality; too many other forces and variables are at play, and reality is that camel’s back was going to break, regardless of which straw was added last. In other words, you would have gone in that direction of your bliss anyway. And if you are an intrinsically motivated, hyper, ambitious contributor to society to begin with, you don’t need external motivation anyway. It may be a quick and fun, caffeine-like jolt, but it’s more entertainment than it is life-changing. 

The world is full enough of motivational speakers; I, for one, will not join their ranks. Extrinsic motivation is mostly an empty promise that does not last, and rarely leads to the happiness or contentedness that we seek. Often it misleads us, or serves the interests of those trying to motivate us to buy the books, re-inflate the bubble, get our vote, or take out the loan.

So for the most part I say screw external motivation—and by that I mean the motivation imposed upon you by others and generally worshiped, without critical scrutiny, as being a good thing. To that end, motivational speakers are too often the symbol of the hype and overselling of that which has already been oversold in our culture, and on which the return is not all it’s cracked up to be. We are already far too motivated in this “material and accomplishment” sense. No, we can’t be careless; and we can’t take big risks in uncertain financial times. But we can re-prioritize our spending, our actions, our intentions, and our time. We can stop with the obsession with “achievement” in Western culture. Fat people, monks, quiet neighbors who work factory jobs, and cerebral geeks who emerge only on solstices are not only people—who incidentally should be admired and honored for surviving and thriving amidst life’s challenges like everyone else; they just might win the real game in the end—the game of joy, enlightenment, beauty, depth of experience, compassion, and love.

 

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(Stephen L. Gibson is a great cocktail party guest, and founder of the truth.bloomfire.com social learning community. He is also the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth via the popular Truth-Driven Thinking podcast program. Steve also posts random thoughts via his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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Dear Fellow Life Travelers,

The great author, thinker and mythologist Joseph Campbell said correctly that we deliver the most benefit to the world when we “find our bliss” and live it. I can honestly say that since 2003 I have pretty much given my life (and a significant portion of my former treasure) to what I see as both a humanitarian effort, and finding my own bliss through that which nourishes me, impassions me, and helps me grow–while helping others along their journey. Only now can I articulate this bliss as a long-time “calling to ministry,” and today I want to inform you of my effort to pursue the remaining days of my existence, including professionally—if possible, through that mission.

I’ve long joked with friends that I’ll wind up in an airport handing out flowers. My fate is definitely not that however—especially since such a role would appear to involve dogma and an inability to question authority—but it could be some reciprocal version that holds no beliefs above critical scrutiny, and teaches the primacy of mutual understanding and the golden rule.

Of course mine is a naturalistic ministry that seeks to move us beyond the failed and sometimes-dangerous promises of self-help, emotion-driven thinking, logical fallacies, new-age wackiness, pseudoscience and supposed certainty about unknowable supernatural claims—so I should be clear that there is no supernatural force “calling me,” but rather my own brain, emotions, interests, skills, and a deep recognition of human suffering. In short, I have set out on a journey to fund and sustain the mission and educational offerings of Truth-Driven Thinking, and to build a related social learning community. If you can assist me with that mission I will be eternally grateful; but that said, this communication is in the interest of sharing my personal motivations and choices with friends, family, and any others who have an interest—essentially the “what” and the “why”. My apologies that this letter is so “all about me”—a topic that doesn’t interest me much, and I will not be offended if it doesn’t interest you at all; but it seemed somehow necessary to offer up some details just in case someone wants them.

The truth is that I have a very difficult time being motivated or caring about doing the things which our culture and society tell me I am supposed to. I don’t disagree with those who contribute meaningfully to the world through traditional roles—or even pursuit of self interest. Those things matter hugely—even though I now question some of the great virtue Ludwig Von Misses and Ayn Rand might attach to self interest—but that’s for another day. The point is that try though I may, I cannot seem to be motivated by the status or rewards of being the metaphorical “sofa king ofKalamazoo”—perhaps for reasons relating to “personal baggage” and experiences that I will visit in a moment. But that does not mean I don’t have fire, passion, and dedication.

What are you going to do, Stephen?

The point here is that Truth-Driven Thinking will hopefully—under my full-time guidance—be able to initially (and sustainably) expand its mission to “improve the wellbeing of humanity through the promotion of social, emotional, and intellectual growth”—as a new, evolving, and radically different kind of organization—one I will again call a “ministry” (I ask leeway in use of the term, as I expressed here some time ago). You can think of it as a virtual (and hopefully someday a physical) “unchurch,” “knowledge church,” learning community, thinktank, or even a social media platform suited for learning—but in any case a force dedicated to the intellectually honest free exchange of ideas, and evidence-driven explorations of life’s most important questions.

For many people in today’s world, it can be difficult to find authentic, open-minded, and intelligent people with whom I can have safe, substantive, stimulating, and open conversations—where emotion is mastered such that all honest thoughts and inquiries are fair game.

It’s my dream to grow an organization that will continue the work of promoting improved estimates of reality as the primary path to improved human wellbeing. Further, it is my goal that the Truth-Driven Thinking organization will be a ministry that seeks to feed both the soul and the intellect—and hopefully illuminates alternative paths to beauty, joy, provisional knowledge, wonder, awe, and new discoveries—while shedding the bondage of dogma and certainty.

But what really motivates you to be so idealistically stupid, Steve?

Well, we all have likes, dislikes, unique personalities, genetics, life experiences, and environmental influences that make us exactly who we are today, and I have no doubt that I am “fully caused” by those things, in this case to be called to this work—or “ministry,” if you will. It might be noted that when I was a committed Christian I many times pondered becoming an ordained pastor; so it seems that a life of ministering and tending to human needs—while pondering big questions—was somehow interwoven into my DNA and experiences. In fact, when asked if I won the lottery today what I would do, a leading option would be to study comparative religion, early Christian history, and philosophy. There is so much insight and value we can gain from seeing the truth of human myths.

To be more specific, I am confident that the sudden loss of my father when I was seventeen, after my mother’s cancer and before her subsequent death within a decade—has shaped me profoundly. Most of what I thought I knew about how my life and how the world would look, was gone in an instant (or two instances). Though my logical brain knows of the need for retirement savings and even making a modest living in the present, when I look around the world I find those things very difficult to prioritize as goals in and of themselves. Though to the best of my knowledge I never felt anger over my losses—to the contrary gratitude for the time I spent with amazing people—three things have become very clear to me in the last twenty years. These things were further underscored by other profound losses I experienced as a result of death. In fact I’ll cut to the chase and say that death and darkness to some degree give meaning and perspective to life and light. What would life mean if there were no death? Would you want to live forever? For trillions of years?

Three Lessons I have Learned:

Lest I digress, here are the three lessons I learned again and again, and the ones that have made my ministry a “calling” that I just can’t reject.

1) Life is short and unpredictable, and all the retirement savings, money, material success, or job promotions you could possible amass will mean less in the end than we think—especially if we are not working in the area of our so-called bliss.

2) Human relationships are they key, and they define our very existence; without them—without sharing, love, cooperation, learning, hurt, and the myriad ways we interact—life would be utterly without meaning (yet we are not very good at these relationships sometimes—and we sadly take them for granted, or allow dogma, fears, xenophobia, and material desires to divide us and lead to hurting one another).

3) Life involves a tremendous amount of human suffering. If that’s not your experience, be grateful.

It is perhaps this latter point that most seems to illuminate the beauty and joy in my life, and curse my ability to settle into a narrow, prescribed path. Life truly is too short for us to settle—settle for needles pain and suffering for humans; settle for living anything less than fully; settle for loving anything less than wastefully in our relationships; settle for insecurity or ego to keep us from living and loving fully.

My old paradigms, my old black-and-white narratives about how the world worked and why; my arrogant old presumption about what supernatural gods had ordained me to do or not do; my old ignorant and elitist beliefs that I had material things because I had somehow made “better choices” than others around me who were suffering—have been forced from my head since the beginning of my journey to put truth ahead of ego.

This is not intended to be an expose on human suffering, but suffice to say for now that billions live daily in hunger, suffer and die in totalitarian regimes, lose families and disease to war, tsunamis, earthquakes and fires, and inflict horrors on one another that we in the West cannot even begin to imagine. This is not a guilt trip, it’s an observation. There is scarcity in the world—scarce water, natural resources, food, and even time and energy. My free-will elitism turned out to be as able to fuel my ignorance of human suffering as some forms of Karma allow others to dismiss them as fully earned and deserved.

Thus if I can help it, I am not going to waste my days doing anything but the work I am naturally “called” to do—which involves trying to mitigate human suffering in whatever small ways I can—through pursuit of truth about how the world works, and by encouraging us all to drink from cup of life deeply and not be shy about pursuing ever-elusive truth, and certainly by recognizing our own fallibilities. My hope is to exemplifying kindness and humility; promote a desirist/utilitarian outlook that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people—at least in terms of public policy decisions; promote continuous growth in intellectual honesty and self awareness; and promote science, reason, and logic as the best tools for estimating how the world might really work, and for fixing or improving it in terms of public policy.

For details on my argument that following truth and evidence and logic wherever they lead us are the best tools for improving things, you can visit my updated web site at www.truthdriventhinking.com.

Toward a New Definition of Success:

For now, however, I am confessing as I move toward a new success. I once considered myself successful. Today I consider myself in many conventional ways even a bit of a failure—though largely by conscious choice, since I am learning and growing tremendously in the ways that matter most to me.

The upshot of all of this is that although I very much need to earn money and make a living, and educate and support my children in order that they might contribute to the world as well, I simply do not feel I have options. I am honored and appreciative beyond words to have the support of the children, my significant other, my family, and even my former wife I think. They know I am compelled to try to make whatever living I can by doing the only thing that I can possibly do at this juncture, and that is to pursue my passionate search for estimations of truth, and paying even more careful attention to feeding souls as I continue to share my journey out of complete ignorance. I must pursue my edification and my naturalistic ministry of helping others see that there is a difference between being fallible—as we all are—and being told we’re crazy for thinking, facing reality, or abandoning nonsensical prescriptions that insults our intelligence and run contrary to all available evidence.

If despite my continued diligence my effort crashes and burns, at least I will have tried. And I will have lived. And based upon mail I still receive about my novel, and the podcast, I will have connected with humans whom I don’t even really know, but according to them have been helped in some way along their own journey. That would be good enough for me.

In Summary

So I fear I have much in common with a central character in my novel, who had returned fromVietnamto make millions on Wall Street, but found emptiness in the rewards of having mastered a financial and geopolitical game that didn’t really matter to his soul. He didn’t beg for money. I will try not to. But I will indeed rely upon “offerings”—as well as hopefully sponsorships and advertising—in order to live my mission.

Hard work has never scared me, and I will do what it takes, even if that means delivering proverbial pizzas for a living on the side. That said, my hope is that like everyone I can best give to the world by doing that which is my “bliss” and passion.

And make no mistake, I thoroughly enjoy that moment of cognitive dissonance when I find out yet again that the evidence says I am wrong yet again—and the world works differently than I thought. As withEdisonsearching for a way to make light, every time I find out I’m wrong, or that science has gotten it wrong, I celebrate the openness to new information and bask in the feeling of being one tiny step closer to a humanity better equipped to fix itself and co-exist.

Even if solely as a fellow journeyer, perhaps in some way you can join me in this effort.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is a great cocktail party guest, and founder of the truth.bloomfire.com social learning community. He is also the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth via the popular Truth-Driven Thinking podcast program. Steve also posts random thoughts via his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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As I worked feverishly on the upcoming relaunch of the new Truth-Driven Thinking Podcast, web site, and most importantly the upcoming learning community (July launch) centered on truth-driven living—a thought occurred to me. Some people question the viability and worthiness of truth as a goal. But can we agree on a few simple propositions? Assume for the moment that we’re talking more about questions of public policy, government, and/or broader societal decision-making; can you agree to the following? (Vote via a link at the bottom.)

  1. Knowing the truth about something makes it easier to fix, understand, or improve that thing. (Assuming for now that an earthly truth exists for all questions, no matter how complex that truth may be—and that some earthly “truths” are knowable and comprehensible to humans; e.g., the space shuttle flies because we “know” gravity and the “proven” laws of physics to be “true.”)
  2. Actions taken based upon true assumptions are more likely to be effective and bear fruit than those based on untrue assumptions.
  3. Therefore, improved estimations of what is true (a.k.a. “how the world really works”) are most useful for improving anything, including the wellbeing of human beings.

And finally, although absolute “Universal Truth” is unknowable and likely unintelligible to humans:

  • 4. The best estimates of truth (reality and “how the world really works”) are attained through the naturalistic methods of science, reason, logic, and empirical evidence;
  • 5. Therefore, those are the best tools for advancing the wellbeing of humanity.

Yes, there are all sorts of problems and details to debate about what “wellbeing of human beings” means and looks like, but that’s too much detail for now; if we can agree to this foundation, we have already made giant strides along the early part of our journey to make the world a better place.  (Vote your assent or dissent here.)

If we cannot agree, that’s okay. But it may be a conversation best had another time and place. Usually if we can’t agree to these items, the problem lies somewhere in the last two items, and in a point of philosophy—often one so boring and “out there” that we regular folks’ eyes glaze over quickly. A common one is that someone says, “No, science, reason, and logic are flawed; you are forgetting faith as a means of knowing things.”

This would also lead us down a path to a lengthy epistemological debate beyond the scope of this page. For now suffice to say that the most basic tenet of truth-driven thinking is that we must always remain open to new arguments and new evidence; but that said, “faith as evidence” is a real show-stopper, and thus will be useless to our journey Will it not? This is because of that answer gives us no need to talk or inquire further; it is an unsatisfactory answer. There would be no need for a website dedicated to truth seeking if “faith” were a satisfactory proof of anything. Whose faith? Which version? Don’t we want to know more than that? When the answer to a big question about how the world works is “god did it,” you can forget going to class, forget studying why stem cells work as they do, and stop asking why.

The claims of someone’s “faith” answer may even be absolutely true, but they simply cannot be tested, falsified (proven wrong), or even debated, any more than if I say there is a dish of lasagna orbiting a tiny planet in a distant galaxy, and I know this because of my faith as a pastafarian. This is not to make fun of faith, per say, but merely to point out why it will be of little use to our journey to fix or improve things.

So while some might see that as an unfair constraint, searching for truth becomes devoid of meaning when one’s “proof” can be “God did it.” Beyond that constraint in method, however, it is my sincere hope that whether you are religious or not, you can join us in a community that seeks truth openly and freely—wherever the inquiry takes us. Just about the only rule, then, is that no belief be held above critical scrutiny, and that all estimations of truth are provisional and temporary—open to new evidence.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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As a mile marker of sorts in my journey to find ever-elusive truth about how the world really works (I’m not even close), here are my leading contenders for the “The Top 11 Lies That Americans Tell Themselves”:

11) People at the “ideal weight” are healthier than people who are ten to twenty pounds overweight; and people who lose weight assume the health characteristics of thinner people—even if they just lose a few pounds.

(Reality check: They aren’t, and they don’t.)

10)  There is a God and he will never give you more than you can handle.

(Reality check: With detailed critical analysis we can determine that it is extremely unlikely that any anthropomorphic version of “god” exists, and if he did we can’t disregard the suicides, mental meltdowns, and the mass fatalities that he doles out daily—so he can give you more than you can handle.)

9)  There is a Mr. or Mrs. “Right” out there for each of us. Once we meet him or her we will want no others; and if we do—or certainly if we love another—we were mistaken about the first person, and we are probably also bad and sinful.

(Reality check: By and large we are serial monogamists by culture, who discard priors and very, very, very rarely pair off and live maximized lives “happily ever after.”)

8) People are more moral if they believe in God, and conversely are more immoral if they don’t.

(Reality check: Empirically not true; proverbially speaking, prisons aren’t filled with atheists.)

7)  Money and competition are effective, long-term motivators.

(Reality check: For most they are not.)

6) There is a biological difference between the races.

(Reality check: There is no such biological distinction.)

5)  The health care system in United States of America is the envy of the world, and it provides the best care at a reasonable cost; there is nowhere you’d rather be sick.

(Reality check: By so-called “hard endpoint” measurements, we Americans spend the most of any other first-world economy, and are nowhere near the top in what we get for it.)

4) We live in a world where merit matters far more than luck; as in a multi-level soap company, nearly everyone who works really hard in our capitalist system can—and likely will—succeed and be able to achieve “financial independence” (a.k.a. retirement), as well as social mobility.

(Reality check: starting with the family you are born into, the deck is stacked. No one is a bigger advocate for this myth than wealthy thin people who got lucky and worked hard, yet erroneously attribute their “successes” in all things to only the latter; lots of people work very hard, and the overwhelming majority never advance classes from that into which they are born. Cycles of poverty or wealth are the rule.)

3)  We have complete “contra-causal free will,” and we each have choices, outcomes, thoughts, and reactions in life that are completely uncaused and without antecedence; we are our own “demi-gods,” capable of acting completely apart from any and all causal influences—environmental and biochemical, known and unknown. We can truly be “self made.”

(Reality check: There are no uncaused effects; contra-causal “free will” is an incoherent human construct, even if determinism is false and randomness rules.)

2) Given adequate access to modern medicine we live and age painlessly; are able to safely give birth to babies beyond our late thirties; prevent or fix just about every malady; defy and mitigate (or ameliorate) the ravages and diseases of aging; live past our late seventies; cure many cancers; prevent most heart attacks; and mostly can achieve “a clean bill of health” at any given time in our lives.

(Reality check: Good nutrition and gains in infant mortality have extended life expectancy from it’s giant dip one hundred years ago, but parts wear out at a predictable rate, episodes of serious back pain befall most of us by middle age; often painful degradation of mind and body ensues with continued aging; we all get some forms of cancer and/or heart disease—and eventually die from it by 75 years of age, 80 if we are lucky. On average, we have “cured” FAR fewer diseases and extended life far less than we believe, particularly in the fields of cardiology and oncology—though we find and “treat” many more cases, at outlandish costs.)

1)  “God did it.”

(Reality check: She had nothing to do with it.)

Please keep in mind that I remain open to new evidence on all matters, including these, and never claim to have any sort of exclusive lock on truth. I could easily be wrong. In my mind, almost everything I do is actually in the form of a question. It gets tiresome and wordy though when I muddily introduce consciousness-raising thoughts like those above, full of prefaces: “I’ve pondered this for years and wonder if these might not be common untruths. What do you think?” It’s just so wishy-washy, especially if the pile of evidence is substantial. It’s also less provocative and attention-grabbing.

You see, dialogue is how we humans learn. Truth-Driven Thinking has not been about the destination, as if Truth could ever be one; it’s been about the methods of learning—namely how we are often fallible in our emotion-driven thinking, and how we are often better served by taking action based upon evidence, reason, and the naturalistic methods of science. By asserting something and then learning from how it is challenged, I regularly grow and refine my own estimations of truth. The fact is that I can’t do it without you. I need you. So make no mistake, I am open to being wrong, and do not wish to sound arrogant here, in my Facebook posts, or anywhere.

That said, I do like to be provocative at times because a vital step in encouraging others to open their minds and recognize the possibility that they too might be flawed, and might not have 100% perfect knowledge of the how the world really works—is standing up and saying “this just might be wrong.” Sometimes calling “balderdash” when all of the current evidence suggests fundamental misunderstandings of how the world really works—is necessary.

Yes, ultimately it is a question: So, “Do you think these things are balderdash?” So how about it? Will you help educate me, and others around you, by asking provocative questions—or politely calling “balderdash”—when your evidences suggests something is?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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Humbly I invite you to try to understand: 

  • That if you saw abortion as murder, in the way the pro-life crowd does, or in the way that you see the premeditated killing of a spouse as murder—then you too might be “intolerant” of the opposition. If you truly believed these things, you too might even see defending the lives of the unborn with force, as morally defensible. 

And

  • That if you see animals as very close to us in the evolutionary tree, and certainly not morally inferior … if you see them as sentient cousins who are conscious and equally as “sacred”—then you too might be “intolerant” of puppy mills, meat-eating humans (speciest cannibals), or those who wear mass-produced fur.

 And 

  • That if you really don’t believe in virgin births, vicarious redemption, scores of dead people walking through the city on the day Jesus was raised from the dead, or any of the thousands of mythological iterations of gods and what is required to make them happy—then you too might grow “intolerant” of being constantly reminded of how immoral and mistaken you are for rejecting the truth claims of each “true” religion.

 Or conversely, 

  • That if you truly believed a divine hand personally sent you a message—or provided people with scripture through the hand of chosen humans; and you believed that if they didn’t believe as you do your loved ones would surely suffer for all times, without end, in a shadowy underworld of torture, pain, and the most brutal punishments available—then you too might be “pushy” or aggressive in trying to influence people whom you care about.

 Or 

  • Or similarly, if you knew that great rewards awaited you for successfully sharing the “truth”, or for flying planes into a building as a martyr; and that anyone who thereby heard your truth or saw your sacrifice might reap the same reward as you—then you too might aggressively seek to share or impose that “truth”.

And 

  • That if you really believe that completely free and unregulated markets always outperform any attempt to regulate, control, or reallocate scarce resources; and you also believe that we humans have free will, and are almost totally and completely autonomous, self-determined beings that can—and should—be accountable only for our own behaviors, skills, capacities, and decisions—then you might understandably be less tolerant of those who make very bad decisions time and again, and you might vote for policies that preserve your liberties and wealth, even if to the detriment of those who make the bad decisions.

The POINT 

Humans adopt narratives to better understand things. When you better understand a person’s narratives, the beliefs that they hold dear, and the experiences that in their minds prove the truth of their beliefs, you can better understand their actions and behaviors. Better understanding motives and behaviors doesn’t condone, justify, make them truer or better, or excuse them; but I assert that it matters—because mutual understanding is a vital first step to improving human wellbeing.

WHY it Matters:

It seems to me that a mutual and more complete “understanding” of the reasoning, sociology, and psychology behind disparate narratives and worldviews is the first step in preserving peace and improving human wellbeing—based on the following logic:

     –    Understanding leads to tolerance;

     –    Tolerance allows minds to relax and be receptive to new information and views;

     –    Open minds are more capable of exchanging ideas and are less defensive when in dialogue;

     –    Through intellectually honest dialogue comes growth and learning;

     –    Through growth and learning come improved estimates of truth (how the world really works);

     –    Through truth comes improved human wellbeing.

So won’t you join me in being the change? In trying to improve your understanding of people and beliefs that are different from your own? Perhaps someday they will then join you and do the same for your beliefs? It’d be a great first step.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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Julian Assange

Julian Assange

As the world continues to debate and grapple with the appropriateness of the releases of national secrets by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks organization, so too, do I.  Is Julian Assange a saint and a hero for disclosing the U.S.’s manipulative, esoteric, hegemonic, unsavory, secretive, and sausage-factory-like governance methods (no disrespect to sausage factories with the analogy)? Or is he a sinner and treasonous detractor for having published ever-present—and ever-necessary—subtly nuanced and untidy aspects of managing a nation. After all, diplomacy is accomplished via human interactions and relationships, which is perhaps not all that different than other interpersonal communication. Gee your hair looks nice today! It’s a lie, but a necessary part of life, isn’t it? Or is it? That got me thinking; what would the world look like if the governance of the most powerful countries were actually transparent at every level?

What if there were no secrets? What if every single email to or from a government entity were public? Perhaps like Jim Carrey in “Liar Liar,” what if we were legally restricted from misleading anyone or mischaracterizing anything? What if cables to foreign nations conferred our actual intent and positions to other nations—politely but openly?

Granted, this is a naïve concept, but bear with me; this is a thought experiment. Clearly there would be times we couldn’t get things done, right? We couldn’t finesse our way through a difficult disagreement using diplomatic niceties, even though we could still, in theory, be kind and polite while being direct and honest. But by failing to temper and use mitigating language, people would eventually get pissed. We couldn’t spy, we couldn’t bluff, and perhaps wars would result and the world would end. Or perhaps not?

However unrealistic, the utopian concept has an appeal at some level, doesn’t it? Could there be value in having a much more transparent, authentic government? We couldn’t finesse things as efficiently, but we also couldn’t manipulate, lie, enslave, or mislead. With fewer secrets would come less corruption, less manipulation, less self-delusional chest pounding in an attempt to be the world’s police force or enlightened philosophical leader—at the great cost of lives and treasure—would it not? And in turn less misdirection of the taxpayers by their governments along the way seems likely, does it not? But keep pondering that as we extend the thought experiment.

No Personal Secrets?

What if there were no privacy at all, even for individuals? We tend to talk about and value our freedoms greatly, but is it possible we could be even more free, at least psychologically, by being a little less private? What if we lived in a world where no person could have any secrets at all? What if your every thought, your every action, your every fantasy, predilection, emotion, construct, creation, and idea were unable to be hidden? Certainly I am not promoting any such elimination of privacy—after all I am a constant and strong advocate for constitutional freedoms, but there is a point to pressing on with the experiment.

Let me be blunt. How “screwed up” are you? I mean really. In my experience most people are a bit screwed up. Your mom and dad, your biology, or your experiences gave you certain neuroses or predilections. Perhaps you don’t trust people. Perhaps you trust people too much. Maybe you are on the extremes of some bell curve—weight, libido, narcissism, obsessive-compulsive, perfectionism, judgmentalism, religion, affinity for pseudoscientific nonsense, or whatever. You and I are far from “real” perfection, and so is everyone else. So how would seeing and sharing all of that, right out in the open, change how we viewed the human condition and its range of deviation from “normal”?

Wouldn’t the ultimate in authenticity and living in total peace—truly “being who one is”—be embodied in this complete nakedness and transparency? And what message would that send to others about their situations? What if people no longer had to wear the often fake mask of a culture or club?

If everyone lived without secrets, would there not be less fear? Would we not trust everyone who is trustworthy, and be better able to “meet the others where they are,” given the fact that nothing would be hidden? Yes, the sociopathic tendencies in some people would be evident— but totally transparent; that would allow us to properly identify, fear, and avoid them to a large degree, it would seem. Overall, what you saw would be what you would get. Wouldn’t that be nice to not have to “figure out” where the hidden narcissists lingered?

The truth is that some people do sit near the sociopathic, narcissistic end of the human continuum. There are “evil” people at those extremes—defined as deaf and blind to the welfare of others via their narcissism. There is also a large and broad continuum in ability, skills, education, mental healthy, and upbringing—which we tend not to see, but would see better in a world without secrets and dissonance-causing social inauthenticities? We would see it all, and perhaps even begin to accept that in a way that we currently do not.

How might that change how we view free will, morals, societal imperatives, and government policy? I might argue that being “real” would show us that people are quite different than what is shown to us by the faces that society, religion, government, and culture force people to wear.

Living Authentically

Have you ever known someone in one context, perhaps work, church, or a golf league—who in another aspect of his/her life is a completely different person than in the others? Someone who pretends to be one person one moment, and is someone scarily different the next?

Many people adhere to religions; but at the same time many of those do not adhere to a great number of significant, mainstream teachings of the religion to which they adhere. A simple example would be a Catholic who uses birth control. Another might be a Christian who thinks human sexuality, when consensual and caring, is a God-given gift to be enjoyed—even if outside marriage or as a recreational sport. (Some surveys show a large number of Christian pastors watch pornography, for example.) These people are not willing or able to be “authentic,” and there are real costs and damage done, I would argue. An example might be the forcing of commonly and falsely hidden behaviors into black-market operations. Think about the real damage done to street walkers by forcing prostitution underground, to a world of gangs, pimps, and drug dealers. This is exactly the type of “externality” I suggest such hypocritical, dissonance-laden cultures create. Real people get hurt!

But what if everyone, including clergy with very different views—was able to be real? This would be the norm in the authentic world of this thought-experiment, where all thoughts and correspondence were public. It would fundamentally change how we view the reality—the true state—of human experience.

Summary

Of course a world without secrets should be a bit of a frightening thought for you. Forget the worst thing you’ve ever done, let me ask you the worst thing you have ever thought! What sadistic, mean, or corrupt thought occurred to you for just the tiniest fraction of a second at some point in your life? What sexual fantasy? What private fetish? What vengeful thought? What wish of harm against another? Ever? For just a second?

As you can imagine, the idea of everyone knowing your every thought, your worst-ever mistake, your deepest secrets, your fears, your irreversible actions and behaviors—is for most mortals far from heart-warming.

With small steps toward authenticity, there might be a chance we can better accept one another for who we are (while accepting and condoning only things that don’t harm another human in any way—physically mentally or otherwise). We could stop wasting time on the charades that cost time and money, and detract from real progress and personal and economic growth. You could stop pretending to be one thing while being another—and maybe, just maybe, better embrace your mistakes, learn from them, grow, and thrive in world that is far more affirming—especially to those whose nature is not at the center of the bell curve.

Perhaps in general this is one of the reasons I so passionately support the rights of gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual humans (despite identifying as straight). Those whom I know to fall into one of these categories tend to appear among the most real, honorable, compassionate, and authentic names I might list.

Maybe all of these are the reasons I personally see as a worthy goal being “real,” transparent, and authentic. (It may also be why I tend to put myself out there and “over-share” in my books and podcasts.) Maybe these are also the reasons why I have been completely unable to get myself riled up with anger at Julian Assange. While I acknowledge some practical reasons my utopia couldn’t really exist, much of the time I can see no point to the many of the charades we play with one another, and even between governments. Today’s strange political bedfellows always seem to try to kill us in a few years anyway; so why play the game?

Both personally and internationally, I tend to see the game as inefficient, dehumanizing, morally sketchy, and even as the cause of great suffering among those who are persecuted for not wearing the fake mask of society, nation, or of a religion they don’t follow.

This whole thought experiment, and this post, is admittedly overly simple and completely impractical. It is true that in the real world there are things we must not share, perhaps in order to protect the interests, privacy, and wellbeing of other individuals—or nations; but I do often wonder why we can’t all be a great deal more “real,” say politely what we mean, take ourselves a little less seriously, do what we say, and be honest about our differences—as we together seek ever-elusive truth about how the world works, and how we humans fit into the picture. Won’t you join me in this goal?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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Others have long argued, and I assent, that we are grossly mistaken to equate myth with falsehood. To the contrary, mythologists, philosophers, and even theologians point out that myths are not untrue, they are statements of eternal truth; they are metaphor, and through metaphor we can gain insights in the truths of our human condition. As great thinkers such as Joseph Campbell or Bishop John Shelby Spong have taught me, sometimes our biggest errors involve literalizing myth into history—which is an evolutionary process through which we sadly destroy the truth of the metaphor. That said, today I want to reflect a bit on the myth of original sin, why it resonates with me, and how we might find redemption for our “sins.”

A Brief History of Sin

In Christianity, sin is a peculiar thing. In the earliest times of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), sin was a very different concept than the one we think of today. Modern Christians can’t imagine life without sin, but the Hebrew predecessors of Christianity surely could. Suffering could be minimized by celebrating the honor and opportunity to obey God’s laws of diet and conduct—which most certainly could be accomplished in full. But when ultimately God’s chosen people still suffered even more over the centuries, the ideas of sin became much more distinct and separate from God and humans alike. The pious Hebrews believed they had satisfied the legal requirements, but still they saw that suffering continued. Sin then evolved—over the latter centuries BCE—into a force; demons or spirits were the cause of suffering. Certainly by the time of apocalypticists like Paul and the Jesus figure, we see a full-fledged notion that “the devil made us do it,” and that such a force was in control of all the people in power.

Later, in the second century, when God’s kingdom did not come to earth “as it is in heaven,” and did not turn the world upside down as imminently predicted—tossing out those in control; granting the meek inheritance of the world; removing the corrupt people in power who were controlled by the dark spirits—well, a new form of sin and salvation evolved. The old notion of what Dr. Barth Ehrman calls horizontal dualism (where good and evil swap places on a horizontal timeline—God’s kingdom that was to come to earth and end this era of pain and demonic control), instead turned to “vertical dualism,” where good and evil were spiritual battles between realms, and within us, rather than chronological and literal transformations here on earth. In short, it became clear there would be no literal “second coming,” because we got it wrong; God’s salvation was not a literal thing in this world, it was a spiritual thing between vertical spiritual realms.

This evolution in thinking can even be clearly seen when progressing from “Mark,” the earliest of the canonical gospels, to the more mystical, Gnostic, or spiritual gospel of “John.” (The quotes indicate that authorship is unknown.) Many—perhaps most—second-century “Christians” believed this material world was an accident, caused by a rouge god and a cosmic misfire between the layers of the heavens, and should not have come into existence at all. Indeed all matter was evil and bad, though some “chosen” ones had special knowledge and access to sparks of divinity that could allow them to access—or even return to—the higher spirit worlds in the heavens. Sex was material and bad; Mary was therefore a virgin (or so became, after Mark’s original gospel in which no such claim was made); pleasure was bad. From this ascetic background, and the evils of our material beings, comes this “we are sinful” stuff that we think of as “sin” in the evolved, modern sense of today’s Christianity.

SIN BECOMES AN INHERTITED, INTERNAL STRUGGLE

So through the evolution of the myth, we move to a narrative of highly guilt-ridden internalizations of evil spirits, and to self-hatred. While even Saint Augustine appeared not to take the Garden of Eden story as literal history, he surely ran with the idea of original contamination of our essence—if not our genome. Some might call him the popularizer of the whole “sin and self loathing” element of Christianity, the same element that often seems so counterintuitive and counterproductive to those on the outside of the faith.

In this regard, the Doctrine of Original Sin is the harmful and sometimes silly-sounding concept that is easy to dismiss, especially for the non-believer. The whole notion of one’s self being so depraved, so horrible, so without merit in God’s eyes, so unworthy of even being allowed to breath without God’s mercy—let alone have pleasure (sinful ice-cream, or physical pleasure)—is all too deeply engrained in Christianity, particularly among the more fire-and-brimstone sects (Evangelicals; Baptists; Pentacostals; etc.). Many modern thinkers dismiss this self flagellation and argue that being taught how horribly harmful and wicked we are, beginning in early childhood, is downright harmful to a healthy psychological development and existence; I agree. At the same time this myth of being “sinful by nature” still resonates with me in some important ways, and is worthy of reflection.

THE MERIT OF THE MYTH

Is it possible to live without causing harm? Saint Augustine surely argued it is not; and I find myself in agreement. We eat animals, often causing them great horror and distress before; we put our needs ahead of others; we say things we don’t mean out of vulnerability; we believe in survival of the fittest (though in some bastardization of the scientific fact of evolution—turning it into some twisted eugenics program where we pay homage to the Gordon Gekkos of the world and worship those who can willfully disregard others); we rationalize competition over cooperation; we forget the Golden Rule; and we hurt real people as we worship our idols, making it a virtue to stay focused on our goals while not being “distracted” by others who need help—lest we be accused of being a “bleeding heart” who will disrupt the rising tide.

Some of my “granola crunch” friends are vegetarians. Of them, some see the consumption of animal flesh as something that should be avoided altogether, since it tends to support violent, painful, and unnecessary harm or suffering to conscious beings (our cousins). To a large degree, I agree, though my cognitive dissonance allows me to enjoy a good filet to this day. But is that not sin? Is that not the absence of perfect holiness and charity? Is there not value to such an idea of perfect love and the absence of causing hurt, angst, harm, or pain?

I have often agreed with M. Scott Peck: egocentrism is the best definition of evil. It is through blatantly hedonistic and selfish action—without empathic or sympathetic interest in the effects of one’s actions on others—that great horrors come into existence. It is for selfish people who care not what they do to others that we sometimes wish there were eternal punishment. But to what degree do we not all cause harm simply by living? I mentioned my pursuit of food. I, too, often wrestle a mother turkey from her babies, and kill and eat her, beyond the bounds dictated by my dietary requirements. I spend money on a Friday libation rather than send it to those still suffering in Haiti.

Are not all these things selfish? Are we not sinners in the mythological sense that our very existence and “selfish genes”—that drive us to survive and feed our delusions of “self”—cause harm in the world? How can we seek redemption and aspire to live at as high a level as possible, causing the least possible pain to others? Are these not questions worthy of our consideration?

Many regular readers will recall that I and my wife of twenty years have chosen to take more distinct paths through life, and will no longer be married. While truly I have no regrets and much appreciation for our 20 years—and we both made no decisions without honest forethought and considerable interest in the well-being of one another—the fact remains that people I love are suffering, and they are suffering for events of which I was a part. Even if hypothetically I bear zero blame for causing suffering (a claim I would not make), any role we play in a chain of events that leads to suffering feels horrible, and also demonstrates some degree of culpability by virtue of our being in the chain. (If we weren’t alive and present, this wouldn’t have happened.)

Even where our choices are not purely selfish, what choices do we make in life—even to give to a charity—that do not have some selfish motivation? Is that selfishness not part of our “original sin,” the admission we must all make that once we breath air, and interact with the world, we will cause harm to something, or someone?

My heart always goes out to people who by pure accident cause injury or death to another person. It elicits in some cases as much sympathy from me as does the victim—perhaps even more. How does one ever forgive one’s self for such a thing? It’s one of my greatest of fears not only for myself, but for my sixteen-year-old son as he takes the wheel of a car.

AN ATTEMPT AT SOLUTIONS

Big questions remain, and obviously answers are elusive; but this is part of the reason mythologies are so ubiquitous and meaningful to us, because those mythologies give us a framework through which we can seek forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and ultimately a sufficiently-clean slate to try to plow forward productively for our remaining days of life. So how can we skeptics benefit from that mythological framework, yet function within a real world while continuing that march toward a useful life?

Certainly I don’t have all the answers, and I’ll await your comments, but here are a few thoughts:

1. First, it seems that we must remain obsessively vigilant of the effect of our choices on others. Perhaps a daily “prayer” asking ourselves how what we did today affected others—and what effect our choices of tomorrow will have—would be a useful practice. We would thereby learn from our mistakes, be conscious of them, and seek to avoid making similar errors. If we do this, even while I thoughtfully eat my occasional steak, it would seem we have made progress.

2. Restitution: If we genuinely play a causal role in suffering or hurt, we need to do all that we can to make it right.

3. Forgive: Whether you are the one who sinned or are the victim who is now is being uncharitable in your treatment of the perpetrator, forgiveness is a very big concept. Books are written entirely on this powerful word. And it is worth noting that sometimes it is ourselves whom we most need to forgive, in order to plow forward and add meaning to our lives, and the lives of others.

4. Perhaps toughest of all, we can celebrate for others their successes, accomplishments, and especially their good fortunes. Jealousy can get in our way; but with conscious effort we will do better than without, and we will prosper in the bountiful harvest of goodwill, which in turn will feed us.

5. Love: Love embodies selfless giving to others, in whatever form you give it. Love embodies the Golden Rule. Giving more is a good thing. This leads to perhaps a Hippocratic Oath of original sin: Do as little harm as possible, being cognizant of the effects of your actions on everyone and everything else; and give love abundantly in penance for your “original sin.”

Conclusion

It seems that if we regularly take these most basic of steps, even our own self interests can become “enlightened,” as Earl Nightingale used to say. Yes, we can pursue our own growth and development—consume food (animal flesh if we must, respectfully appreciated at a minimum), enter into relationships, seek intellectual nourishment and education—but still fully recognize that a complete absence of negative impact is likely impossible.

We do cause harm through mere existence, but be it through the insights into redemption that are offered by myths and metaphors—or through conscious intention and attention—that harm of “Original Sin” can be far less than the benefit we provide to the world.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2010, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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