Author Archives: Tom Knox

What god would you like to have today, Sir/Madam?

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

Research has shown that our brains are predisposed for belief in god(s) [1]. Stephen Pinker’s theory is that it’s an unwanted side-effect of our instinct for grammar [2]. Richard Dawkins theorises that it’s genetic drift, ie the mutation(s) that led to the survival benefit of brains capable of symbolic thought is greater than the cost of an erroneous belief in deities [3].

Now when we understand this we can stop this childish nonsense of belief in god(s). Can’t we? No. For all our capacity of rational thought, we’re still fundamentally emotionally driven beings. No matter how much you understand why you are sad, this fact alone won’t dispel the sadness. Just wanting to be happy, however rational this may be, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Understanding that there is no god doesn’t magically fill in the empty god-shaped hole in our atheist’s brains.

If we’re stuck with belief in god(s), we might as well pick a god or gods that work for us. Since we, Syntheists, are aware all gods are invented, and are therefore infinitely malleable, they can take any shape or form we desire or need. With one minor caveat. We can’t make them actually exist.

How about an infinitely loving god, who listens to us, and cares and wipes our tears when we’re sad. A god who we can turn to for protection in times of need? But love has a physical manifestation. Yes, it’s an emotion. It’s a very strong emotion. Of all our emotions, love is maybe the strongest emotion that has been programmed into our genes. It’s the emotion we’re genetically predisposed to yearn more than any other. Love isn’t only kind words and a pat on the head. Love is among other things altruistic acts and for people to go out of their way to help each other. Not just kind words. An imaginary god, no matter how hard we believe in it, won’t do shit for you. It really doesn’t matter how much in pain you are or how afraid you are, apart from kind words, no god is going to come and help you.

If you think I’m only having a go at monotheism. I’m not. The same criticism can be made against most gods humanity has ever created. We’re all insecure to some degree. We all have an urge to be taken care of by somebody who understands us. But this type of god will turn you into a passive child, unable to help yourself. And if your passivity ends up ruining your life, it’ll turn you into a victim. No matter how common it is, I think faith in this type of god is wholly destructive. It’s painting over the cracks instead of fixing the underlying emotional problems in your life. Faith in god can only positive if that faith motivates you and give you the strength to fix what needs fixing.

“God helps those who help themselves.”

-Sophocles (409 BC)

How about gods that are facets of your personality. These are the types of gods found in Buddhism. When you want to be more decisive and aggressive you worship the god of that type. [4]. It relies on identifying with the deity and taking on their facets. And in effect bringing out those aspects in ourselves. To aid the worshipper they’ve been given names, clothing, personalities, specific prayers and so. A plethora of tactile and mnemonic aids in reminding the worshipper who they now are. The handy thing about these is that it’s thousands of years of Buddhist tradition and ritual to draw upon. Even though our modern world is much different from the world of Gautama Buddha, our brains are the same. And we have the same emotional needs as they did. Whether the Buddhist gods really exist out there or are only figments of our imagination, Buddhism is silent on. But does it really matter? Does the fact that us atheists use a god that other people may actually believe really exists take away from it’s usefulness? Of course it doesn’t. Please, feel free to use these if they work for you. Or use them as templates and change them. Wouldn’t it be fun to worship a god of initiative and action called Sparky?

I’ve played around with the idea of god(s) and have come to use a very rudimentary type of god. I’ve found they help me the best in times of mental weakness. They’re a kind of imaginary parent. Or to use Freudian terms, they’re facets of my super-ego I’ve broken out and made into concrete mental images.

I only have two gods in my life at the moment. Treating them as sacred is the key to their success in helping me. The first is the god of silence. I allow this god to fill me when I need to sill my mind or just relax. Without this god I have trouble winding down. I’m not naturally inclined for lying back and relaxing. For me I have to force myself. Therefore I need this god in my life. By keeping it sacred I refrain from pushing it away and filling my mind again. This god works for me because this is something I need in life.

I have not given this god a name. Which in itself is a mnemonic as to what this god is for. It’s the opposite of the god of labelling, understanding, thinking, controlling, manipulating and so on. This is the god of letting go. It’s possibly also the god of deep breaths. I discovered this god when writing this article and has been with me since [5].

The other god I have found I call “get on with it”. When my dead gaze stares back at me from the monday morning mirror, this is the god that appears. This god often pops up when I’m doing everything else but what I’ve set myself as a goal to do. This god is impatient and usually rolls it’s eyes at me. Each time he appears I know it’s right. And keeping this god sacred has helped me with, among other things, getting to work on time.

These little friends are always with me nowadays. And they truly have been like friends to me. Imaginary friends. Much like I imagine a Christian feels when they feel the presence of God. But it’s not like I have conversations with this god. All conversation with these gods has always been decidedly one-sided. Which of course is only to be expected of a wholly invented god. But they have, in spite of their non-existence, still managed to make my life better and have helped and guided me to be a better person.

Another member of the Stockholm congregation, Joel Lindefors, also has been experimenting with using gods. He has found other gods than me useful to him.

His first is a god he calls, Pantheos or Amor  Fati, the god of acceptance. To understand one’s own little part in it all. To look up at the sky or out over the ocean.

The god of strength. To use when Joel feels small, worthless and in the grips of overwhelming fear. He calls this god Entheos or Syntheos. Syntheos is the god that is evoked when among other people. While Entheos is the god of renewal and change. To find the strength within to grow and adapt, to beat one’s demons. These are two aspects of the same god Joel uses.

If you have gods that have helped you that I haven’t thought of, please feel free to add them in the comment section below.

I’ll end this with saying a prayer to the god of coming up with clever endings to articles. Let’s just call her Fluffy. Yes, I invented her just now. I will no doubt invent more as needed.

Amen

[1] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm

This is just one example of many

[2] http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2004_10_29_religion.htm)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion.

[4] http://www.iloveulove.com/spirituality/buddhist/buddhistdeities.htm

[5] http://syntheism.org/index.php/2013/12/athea/

 

Atheos and the art of introspection

Don't forget to breathe

Don’t forget to breathe

“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”

― Eckhart Tolle (the power of Now)

Introspection

All religions have identified the need to artificially introduce introspection into our lives. Modern man has a way of keeping the mind busy. Either working toward a goal or distracting ourselves, to take our mind off all our hard work and other worries. When we’re not doing either of these we too often feel stressed, as if we’re wasting time. All religions seem to agree that we all need to take time out of our busy schedules regularly to stop and think. To explore our minds to see whether we are in fact headed in the right direction in life. If the goals we have set for ourselves are the correct or worthwhile goals. Or just to let feelings stirred up throughout our day sink in and get processed. Introspection, contemplation, prayer, meditation, reflection and self-examination are all names of the same or very similar activities. The oh-so-popular-of-late Mindfullness probably belongs in this category as well.

“If you do not know to which port you are sailing, no wind is favourable.”

/Seneca the younger (Stoic philosopher)

I’ve identified two general themes of religious introspection. One is directed introspection; the practitioner is asked to meditate on specific topics, or ask certain questions. The other is to calm one’s mind and open it to whatever thoughts pop up and refrain from judging. The expressed goal of the second is often to be able to clear one’s mind entirely of thoughts.

Directed introspection

The Zoroastrian credo can be summed up as right thoughts lead to right words, lead to right actions. Much of the Zoroastrian scriptures are composed in verse and in the form of a mantra. Mantras are insightful thoughts; thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation on the universe, personal spiritual growth, introspection and commitment to the principles of the faith, as well as formulation of one’s personal goals. Here is a Zoroastrian morning meditation.

I pray for the entire creation,

And for the generation which is now alive

And for that which is just coming into life

And for that which shall come thereafter.

I pray for that sanctity which leads to well-being

Which has long afforded shelter

Which goes on hand in hand with it

Which joins it in its walk

And of itself becoming its close companion as it delivers forth its bidding,

Bearing every form of healing virtue which comes to us.

And so may we be blessed with the greatest, and the best,

And most beautiful benefits of sanctity;

Aidun bad – so may it be.

/Avesta, Yasna 52.1-3

Yoga is another form(s) of directed introspection. This will be an extremely condensed introduction. Originally Yoga was a collection of meditative techniques within Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism intended to help the practitioner (yogi) attain Enlightenment. But now in the modern world it is very popular primarily as an exercise technique. Yoga operates on the assumption that the mind and body are connected. To relax the mind, the body needs to be in “harmony” and “balance”. For example, anxiety and negative thoughts often lead to shoulders being pulled forward and up, as well as a general collapse of the bodies posture. This is bad for all manner of things, especially circulation and just keeping the brain oxygenated. The reverse can also be true. An unfit body can lead to soreness and ache, which in turn leads to negative thoughts. The idea is to work on creating a posture and muscularity of a happy and healthy person with the hope of the mind following and leading to a person who is actually happy and healthy. Mind and body in connection.

There is a vast variety of ways to practice yoga, but a general theme is that the physical exercise forms of Yoga places emphasis on keeping one’s mind focused on one’s body and on how muscles and bone interact in physically taxing positions.. Partly to block unwanted thoughts, and partly to increase the stretch. In all Yoga one of the most important factors often missed when looking at it at a glance is the great stress on the controlled and slow Yoga-breathing. When oxygen is constricted in the way it is in Yoga it acts to calm the mind of the practitioner further allowing them to “be in the moment”.

Christian prayers are also directed meditation, and places great focus on letting go of the ego (which is good) by completely focusing on Jesus and God (which I fail to see would in any way is beneficial to the practitioner or anybody). But just because I don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong.

Now and again the Catholic Pope makes decrees. They come in the form of letters to the bishops. In 1989 the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation” was distributed. It warns against New Age practices which they say risk “degenerating into self-absorption” or “into a cult of the body”. It also warns that if “euphoric states” are attained this is not proper Catholic meditation. I tried my best to find some positive take-away from this. Here is the complete text if you wish to give it a shot.

The Trappist monk Michael Keating has created a system of meditation he calls Centering Prayer which is liberally based on the Catholic system and borrows heavily from Transcendental mediation. Here he describes it.

The Thinker, Rodin

The Thinker, Rodin

Free-floating introspection

Buddhist meditation is the other type of meditation aimed at clearing the mind of thought. The trick to them is to allow thoughts come crowding in and resist to urge to act on them or flee from them. Just let them wash over you. Open up your heart and feel them, but only observe. Just let them swirl around and hover in your mind. We (humans) have very well developed methods of self-deceit and self-denial. We are good at finding ways to avoid having to look at ourselves critically. We’re good at finding ways to mentally flee. The goal of this meditation is to stop fleeing. To accept yourself.

A simple guide to Buddhist meditation:

1. Find something soft to sit on.

2. Find a reasonably quiet room or outdoor space.

3. Sit comfortably. Preferably with a straight back. But if that is too taxing, feel free to slump forward. The point is physical comfort without allowing you to fall asleep. We’re aiming for relaxed yet focused.

4. Let your hands rest one in the other on your lap, palms facing upwards, or place your hands palm up on your knees with your thumb touching your second finger.

5. Close your eyes and start to count your breaths. Count on each breath in…breath one, breath two, breath three… Try to breath deeply and slowly. Relax your face and jaw. Relax your hands. When you get to ten, start again at one. If you miss ten and find yourself at 12 or 13, don’t worry; just go back to one. With each breath out, feel your tension going out as well.

6. When thoughts come into your mind, try not to follow them. Just identify them and let them go. The same with sounds and sensations. “I just thought about my car” “That was a dog barking” “I am hungry”. If you simply identify thoughts and distractions and don’t follow them or focus on them, they will begin to just pass by you.

7. End the meditation by beginning to move slowly. Open your eyes slowly, let your hands fall to your sides, stretch your toes, feet and legs.Come to your feet slowly. If you immediately hop into full-on action you’ll most likely lose the benefits.

8, Initially it is recommended to meditate limited periods, and then gradually extend the periods. 10 minutes is plenty when you’re starting out. The key to success is doing it regularly. It’s hard. If you push yourself too early you’re likely to kill the fun and you’re not as likely to find it as beneficial in the long run.

Science

Not only are there spiritual benefits of meditation. There are immediate and measurable gains from it. Here’s a study (done in April 2013) on the efficacy of meditation immediately preceding attending a lecture. There are no surprises here. Meditating students retain more information and score higher on tests. Here’s a similar study on yoga that reaches the same conclusion.

Here is a general summary of what science has to say about meditation. There’s a whole host of positive effects and no negative effects. It can help everything from PTSD to heart conditions to insomnia to CD4 cell counts of AIDS patients to just plain old stress management. No surprises there. So get on your knees and pray sisters and brothers. According to the science, what is of less consequence is to what you pray.

MIndfullness is so popular today that I won’t waste time describing it. There are many places to check it out. Here for example. What is relvant it that it has been proven to help all manner of mental and mood problems, like depression and anxiety. It also makes us more attentive. Which should be a pretty obvious gain. I think it is still worth noting.

 

References

Meditating Before Lecture Leads to Better Grades

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12671-013-0199-5

Same goes for yoga

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130605190552.htm

The science on meditation

http://transformationalchange.pbworks.com/f/Health%2BBenefits%2Bof%2BMeditation.pdf

http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999(01)00261-6/abstract

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938400003863

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289601000708

Science on Mindfullness

http://www.gwern.net/docs/dnb/2010-zeidan.pdf

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20462570?dopt=Citation

Yoga breathing

http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Breathing.html

Zoroastrianism

http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/worship/healingprayer.htm

Guides to Buddhist meditation:

http://www.how-to-meditate.org

Catholic directed introspection.

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html

The Trappist monk Michael Keating’s Centered Meditation. Link

 

Athea

The child god depicted nude, standing in a languid pose with his weight on his right leg, the left bent at the knee, the left arm bent and held out to support a fruit-laden cornucopia entwined with a snake, the right arm bent acutely with the hand toward his face, the forefinger extended toward his lips in characteristic fashion, his head turned to the side, his hair centrally parted, adorned with the plaited side lock of youth and surmounted by a hedjet-crown fronted by a Uraeus, atop the original headdress-like socle.

Harpocrates, Greek god of silence and secrecy

“I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Trees are barren. Birds have flown south. Wings of insects long frozen. Crunching snow below your feet breaks the silence. When stopping to look around, to see if you are still headed in the right direction, silence.

We are now transitioning into Athea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the winter solstice and spring equinox Atheos. Atheos is the empty god. The god of nothingness. The god of not existing. The god of silence. Surely a god worthy of worship for an atheist.

We focus on darkness, moderation, introspection, solitude, stillness and emptiness.

Athea, winter solstice

All religions place emphasis on introspection, to regularly still one’s mind and explore what thoughts intrude. To force oneself to confront fears and admit our weaknesses. To resist the urge to occupy our minds with trivialities. A requirement for introspection is to have a space made available to us with few distractions. Temples have always been islands of calm in hectic cities devotees (or anybody off the street) can sit and collect their thoughts.

When was the last time you took some time out of your day to stop and reflect on your life or just observe what is around you? 

Some religious devotees go one step further. The God of Silence, worshipped in silence, is a deity that has turned up in many forms widely worshipped in many cultures, for a variety of reasons. Unlike other adherents, however, those specifically following the God of Silence in its various aspects have most often been mystery cults, and therefore didn’t write anything down. We’ve had to construct them based on odd scraps found in historical texts or simply based on guesswork from archaeological digs and artefacts. Here are a few we can let ourselves be inspired by for this season:

– Sige is the goddess of silence for the Gnostics. Pagan theology has a way of letting metaphor and reality blend and mix seamlessly. Sige is the mother of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Sophia is locked in an eternal struggle against the Demiurge of ignorance. It’s weapon to spread ignorance is the constant babble of nonsense. Ignorance is seen as a of force of nature that constantly needs to be pushed back, or it’ll over-run us completely. There are no preserved temples to Sige. We have no surviving idols or depictions. It wasn’t until 1945 and we unearthed the Nag Hammadi cache that we got an insight into this lost cult. We know very little about her worship in practce. But we do know that devotees stayed silent and were tasked with “confronting themselves”.

– Meretseger is the Egyptian (Kemetic) goddess of silence, vengeance as well as forgiveness. She was tasked with protecting the tombs of the kings. She had major festivals to her honour and a large dedicated temple complex in Thebes. We don’t know the practicalities of how she was worshipped other than that sacrifices was made to her. During festivals she was believed to inhabit her idol and if you would admit to your sins and repent in her presence she could grant you forgiveness. Since she had the head of a cobra and was to protect the tombs she presumably bit any tomb-robbers in the face? We really don’t know.

– The Greeks worshiped a god of silence and secrecy named Harpocrates. We know nothing of it’s worship today. To our knowledge there were no temples solely dedicated to Harpocrates. But his statue is very common in the temple of other gods. We have no idea what the significance might be. Apart from his image, all we know is that he’s the Greek God of Silence and secrecy. The rest is a well kept secret indeed.

During the Italian Renaissance ideas began to spread that there was some sort ancient pagan knowledge suppressed by the early Christian church that would explain some powerful ultimate universal truth of reality beyond that of what they were told by their priests. What this knowledge could be or what it would be for, or why it was a threat to the church is unclear. Secret societies were formed where these ideas were discussed. Harpocrates became the symbol for this entire movement. The members considered themselves very much Christian.

For reasons only Aleistar Crowley himself can answer, (presumably in a seance) Harpocrates also came to prominence in his movement Golden Dawn, the Thelema movement (that sprung from it) and modern occultism. Harpocrates came to symbolise “the Higher Self” and even “the god who is the cause of all generation, of all nature, and of all the powers of the elements’ and as such he ‘precedes’ all things and comprehends all things in himself”. Perhaps because these were inherently mysterious? The Sign of Silence was performed at the end of rituals to symbolise this mystery. Even though modern occultists often like to think their rituals involving Harpocrates are ancient, these should be seen as wholly modern inventions. I think it should be clear by now what Syntheists think about newly invented religions.

Aleister Crowley and the Sign of Silence (also known as Sign of Harpocrates.

Aleister Crowley making the Sign of Silence

–  The Norse god of silence, Víðarr. This is also the Norse god of vengeance. Which might explain the need for discretion since it’s never wise to announce these kinds of plans in advance. The reason given for Víðarr’s silence is that he was so focused when he killed the Fenris wolf that he was unable to speak. Either way, he was worshipped in silence. At his festivals followers would assemble and say nothing.

– Atri, technically NOT a god of silence. Rather the opposite. He is the vedic god of saving us from silence. During an eclipse Hindus were forbidden to speak. A demon had swallowed the sun. In order not to distract the demon-slayer, Atri, it was important to stay silent. Since he was worshipped in silence I think Atri qualifies for this list.

– Angerona is a Roman goddess of Silence. Appropriately for us today, she had a major annual festival on the winter solstice (they called Divalia) where her idol (with mouth bandaged over) would be placed on one of the gates leading into Rome. In the presence of her idol it was forbidden to express anguish or unhappiness. Which isn’t silence as such, but this was still her name. During this festival the ban covered all of Rome. People were then only allowed to say pleasant things to one another. She was the god who relieved men from pain and sorrow and could in certain circumstances also be the god of fulfilled desire. During this festival sacrifices were also made to Volupta, the goddess of sensual pleasure. Which I guess is the opposite of calm introspection. But who said religion always has to be serious and sombre?

– The Lord of Infinite Stillness (Silence) is believed to exist within and/or govern silence and is called on by Buddhist and Hindu adherents to assist in meditation.

– Quakers. A significant part of Quaker mass is to be spent in silence contemplating. Sometimes a Quaker mass is simply an hour of sitting in silence.They take utmost care not to disturb one another during this time.

– the Unnamed (or Unknown) God, aka Silence Incarnate. This cult is briefly mentioned by Paul in Acts 17:22-31. To its devotees it was considered the most powerful of gods, has no designated gender or personified characteristics aside from what the observer gives to it. Apart from it’s mention in the Bible this cult is lost to history.

Angerona, Roman godess of silence

Angerona, Roman godess of silence

As an ending note I should add that all religions condemn cruel gossip, obscene jests at an other’s expense, idle talk, and overly personal and curious prying. They condemn these for all the obvious reasons. It’s all about inflating one’s ego or aiming to damage another’s. Neither will aid you in connecting with those around you. Silence is always to be preferred to these.

References

Gods of silence

Sige, Harpocrates, Modern Harpocrates Thelema Crowley’s ritual of the pentagramVíðarr, Atri, Angerona, Quakers, The Unknown God

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

 

I am, because of you


One of my greatest heroes recently passed away, Nelson Mandela. Seeing his image or hearing his name makes me proud to be human, just happy to exist. So it was with heavy heart I received the news of his death. If we want to be more like him it is fitting to explore his philosophy of life. He had a simple credo, Ubunto, which I think, can be applicable to Syntheism as well.

The idea is that what we are, as humans, is created by others. Our place in our communities defines who we are. The human as a purely social animal. Without a collective to share with, we do exist, but not as humans. We need others to care about, affirm their feelings, hopes and desires and in turn be affirmed by others. People are not people, without other people.

 

I am because of you.

The longitudinal Grant study, where 237 Harvard students have been followed for 75 years, does strongly indicate that sharing and giving to others is what makes us happy. Another way to say it is that Ubuntu seems to be hard-wired into our genes. So we might as well live by it.

It’s not a complicated credo follow. But it is hard. It requires you to let go of your ego now and again and focus completely on somebody else, to allow yourself to be there for others.

Quotes on Ubuntu

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

– Desmond Tutu

“A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.

– Michael Onyebuchi Eze

“A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

-Nelson Mandela

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_(philosophy)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Study

Overcoming grief

_gorilla_grief

Allwetter Zoo, a mother holding her dead son

 When it comes to overcoming grief and emotional pain, it turns out, humans are not all that unique. It’s true that we have a wide variety of methods with which to flee our troubles. Examples are: work, drugs, sex, relationships, hobbies, physical exercise etc. But when it comes to what we need to do to face them and move on we are all remarkably similar. 

When I had a painful loss in my life I couldn’t deal with alone, I came in contact with the research of John W James and Russell Friedman of the Grief recovery Institute. In order to better help people in their practice they did extensive research and identified several discrete steps all grieving need to take to overcome their pain. I’ve come to recognise these principles in various religious practices. It seems like major religions have already figured these steps out, if not in theory, at least in practice, and are all acting on them:

James’ and Friedman’s steps to overcoming emotional pain:

1. Acknowledge that you have issues and define what they are. When we feel emotional discomfort our first instinct is to avoid the pain. Instead try to allow yourself to feel what you feel.

2. Accept that you have part of the responsibility to overcome your grief.

3. Identify your thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings you haven’t expressed yet.

4. Express those feelings in a safe environment.

5. If you’ve been honest with yourself and done the work you should be able to say goodbye to the pain. Find strength and joy by this. Learn and grow.

Intellectualising emotional pain, by itself, never works. Understanding why you are sad won’t make the pain go away. Feelings have their own rational and rarely cooperate. Contrary to popular belief time doesn’t heal all wounds. Keeping busy and trying to ignore the pain will only serve to prolong the pain. In time we may push the pain into our subconscious, make it part of our personality. But until we dare face it and deal with it, it will linger, draining us and dragging us down.

In order to feel safe and be relaxed enough to face our fears, honestly share and be open with how we feel we need a people around us we feel safe with. We need to feel respected and cared for. We need to be able to weep together and laugh together. The mending of broken hearts requires hard work and is difficult to do alone. This is the kind of basic unit around which all religious communities are built.

So what about other people’s sorrow?

If we want to be part of the supportive community for others we need to know what to do. Best advice. Don’t over-think it. Just say “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how it must feel for you. How have you been doing?”. It communicates that you care, that you’re not about to belittle their pain or give them unwelcome “expert” advice and it gives them the opportunity to talk to you about it without it coming off as prying.

The mortician Caitlin Doughty has a witty and fun vlog about her job and death called Ask a Mortician. Here’s a good video from her on the topic of grieving.

 Rituals to help us overcome emotional pain

Burial rituals are designed as a sacred space where the grieving are given a safe space to express their pain, say words they feel need to be said to the deceased and a to take a final farewell. They all contain the above steps and components.

埋葬-001-1024x768

Shinto burial ritual

  1. “yukan,” washing the corpse, the family washes the deceased.
  2. “kiyu hokoku,” The family announces the death through prayer
  3. “makura naoshi no gi,” the deceased is placed with the head facing north.
  4. Food, sword and a knife is left of the the deceased
  5. “nokan no gi,” the placemend of the deceased in the coffin.
  6. “kyuzen nikku,” daily offerings to the deceased at the altar.
  7. Announcement of the return of the spirit.
  8. “bosho batsujo no gi,” earth purification ceremony of the grave site.
  9.  “Kessai,” priest’s purification
  10. “tsuya sai,” the wake
  11. “senrei sai,” transfer of the spirit, a priest transfers the deceased’s spirit from the body into a wooden tablet. The tablet is held over the deceased while the priest says a prayer.
  12. “settai,” refreshments, food cooked and is served to the mourners.
  13. “Shinsosai,” the funeral service. The room is purified, offerings are made and eulogies are given by the priests.
  14. “kokobetsu shiki,” farewell ceremony, mourners file out past the deceased and say farewells.
  15. “hakkyu sai no gi,” the preparation of the coffin for removal to the grave site.
  16. “soretsu,” funeral procession.
  17. “hakkyu-go batsujo nogi,” purification of the house, priests and relatives purify the house with cleaning after the coffin leaves. The funeral altar is removed and a new altar is set up.
  18. “maisosai,” burial rites, family and close friends assemble at the grave site or crematorium with the body. More offerings are placed with the coffin.
  19. “kotsuage,” picking up the bones, bones are removed from the crematorium ash and put in a vase.
  20. “Kika sai,” coming home, step 20, is the return of the ashes to the home. The family thanks the people who helped with the funeral and places the ashes in the family shrine.

Priests have in all times been trusted persons to safely share with. Ideally, it’s a person who exists apart from everyday life only to be a spiritual guide, to share with and who can be trusted never to abuse their position. We don’t have priests in Syntheism. But we do have a community and the shared wisdom collected in all the world’s religions.

Priest hears confession durng 2012 men's retreat at New York high school

Catholic confession

It’s important to actually say goodbye. Even though Syntheists don’t believe in an afterlife, the soul, ghosts or anything supernatural you still remember those you have lost. You know them, their mannerisms and the kinds of things they would say. You can still talk to them in your head, feel their presence. I’m sure we’ve all had such solo dialogues. In such an internal discussion you can admit things, forgive them or tell them things you need them to hear, and it’ll still have an impact on you as if they really were in front of you.

If you have unfinished business with somebody you have lost, you can use this method to settle things. Say it out loud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Whatever you need to say, say it and it can help to heal your wound. For psychological reasons, saying it out aloud with trusted people present is much more effective for healing this kind of pain, than just thinking it in your head. Community and the support from others is critical. We all need an understanding voice that listens.

Will the circle be unbroken (written by Ada R. Habershon). Sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon. A Christian lament for a dead mother

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1046549/A-mothers-grief-Heartbroken-gorilla-cradles-dead-baby.html

http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com

http://www.rotunda.ie/MaternityCare/MaternitySupportServices/Bereavement.aspx

http://people.opposingviews.com/20-steps-shinto-funeral-2693.html

http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/blog/2010/Mar/11/buddhist-perspective-grieving-roshi-joan-halifax/

http://www.catholic.org/prayers/confession.php

Synthea

“The falling leaves drift by my window

The falling leaves of red and gold

I see your lips the summer kisses

The sunburned hands I used to hold

 

Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all my darling

When autumn leaves start to fall”

/Jacques Prévert

 

Coping with great loss

The heat of the summer nights are fading. Coats are clenched to the body. The pensive beauty of autumn is here. Any stable state will eventually change. At some point bliss will end. Such is the nature of existence. Any outlook denying that the good times will end will assuredly be a fearful life. Learning to accept, endure and overcome our inevitable losses and failures are lessons we all will learn, sooner or later. Sooner is better.

We are now transitioning into Synthea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the autumn equinox and winter solstice Syntheos. It is from Synthesis, the Greek word for “bringing together”. Undoubtedly the greatest asset of any religious community has always been in times of personal crisis, helping us deal with loss, being there for us when we need it the most.

This season we will focus on endings, death, transformation, change and ridding oneself of the old and redundant

Synthea, autumn equinox

Philosophy and science teaches us that the world we have in our minds, our memories, are all symbolic representations in the brain. This is undoubtedly true. So why does if feel differently being in the moment, than having had it pass? What is the difference between a cool breeze on our faces a hot summer’s day and our memory of it? What about an imaginary breeze? What is the difference between a the memory of a friend alive or dead? What is the difference between an imaginary friend and a real friend?

I write this text moments after having learned of the death of a friend. I’m now a whirl of conflicting emotions and my conclusion is that none of my understanding of the nature of the world matters. A heart in pain doesn’t care about the philosophical implications or what science tells us is natural or normal. It doesn’t care whether it makes sense to feel hurt. All it requires is human contact and comfort. To find the warm and caring eyes of compassion. A place to feel safe.

Sanctus: Written by Zbniew Preisner to his friend and artistic collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski as he was dying in hospital.

Since we’re atheists, shouldn’t it make us, the Syntheists, better at dealing with loss than other religions? We aren’t afraid of the naturalistic reality of life. I have to conclude; probably not. All religions are excellent at dealing with grief. Which is odd considering that the vast majority of religions have ideas of an afterlife. An outright denial of death is standard practice. When a loved one dies why are they sad at all? Their loved one is now, allegedly, in a happier place? Aren’t they?

Which brings me back to my earlier point. The heart feels what the heart feels. Comforting lies and wishful thinking, no matter how often repeated, cannot give comfort in times of great emotional turmoil. Only the genuine caring compassion of a community will be good enough. It certainly seems like all major religions figured this out early on and are all good at it. They’ve just neglected to tell anyone. They all have successful models we can use.

An Islamic funeral ritual

1) Bathing the dead body, The immediate family and others trusted by them clean the deceased together. Psychologically it works on many levels. It brings home the reality of what has happened powerfully. It serves to remove any sanitized image one might have had about the person. This body is unquestionably lifeless, but life has to continue and those surviving can find help and solace in each other. In the shared ritual they are physically helping each other, and may act as a bridge to allow them to open up and help each other emotionally.

2) Enshrouding the body in white cotton or linen cloth. A symbol of our equality. At birth and death we truly are all equal.

3) The funeral prayer, Salat al-Janazah

“O God, if he was a doer of good, then increase his good deeds, and if he was a wrongdoer, then overlook his bad deeds. O God, forgive him and give him the steadiness to say the right thing.”

If one wants to be cynical, one might say that it’s not about asking God to forgive the deceased, but the congregation, family and friends; and not allow any perceived sins besmirch those surviving the dead. Allowing each person to be their own.

4) Burial of the dead body in a grave. Emotionally it’s normal to outright deny that somebody you have lost is actually lost. The burial acts as forcing the survivors to physically expel the dead from their lives. Not their memory of course, but unhealthy hopes of a future together. 

5) Positioning the body so that the head faces Mecca. To emphasize the Muslim identity and being part of a community.

It is arguably the single most important feature of any religion. What we can do differently is cut the bullshit. Leave the platitudes and one-liners we all know have never helped anybody.

The way we react to death of loved ones makes it all too obvious that we’re primarily emotional beings. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all, at times fragile and in need of being taken care of and comforted by somebody we trust.  Much like a parent comforts a child. It doesn’t matter how rich we are, how economically efficient world we create for ourselves if we don’t primarily focus that world on taking care of human insecurities and character flaws. Without compassion from our fellow humans, we are truly alone in this world. We need to support each other, help each other, because we know nothing else will.

Please take some time to think about those in your life, the people you care about, who you know are suffering from a loss now, those who are overcoming grief or hardship. What kind of support do they require? Is it within your power to help them? Is your help welcome? Often all that is needed is to let them know that you’re there for them if they need you.

 

If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are surely no theists at a funeral.

If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are surely no theists at a funeral.

 

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

On the risks of intuition

When you have choices in life how do you, (or I) know which is the correct path to follow? How do we know what is the ethically right thing to do? Religions have in all ages been dependable guides to turn to when we aren’t sure. As an atheist we have, to date, no such option. As Syntheists we can change that, in the future. Today we have two available options, our reason or our intuition. In two articles I’m going to attempt to argue that neither is good enough. This article is about the problems of placing to great a trust in our intuition.

Do you usually go with whatever feels right to you in your heart? Go with your gut feeling? Your intuition? Do you trust your intuition? Should you trust your intuition? What is intuition?

in·tu·i·tion

noun \ˌin-tü-ˈi-shən, -tyü-\

The power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

On the question how we came to learn about whatever it is we intuit nobody is quite sure. You can easily do this experiment with your own mind. From any collection of things quickly and without reflection reach out and grab whatever speaks to you the most, and then ask yourself how that line of reasoning went. Why that and not another?

If we ask a neuroscientist where it comes from their answer will also be, “we’re not quite sure”. But we do know through psychological research that there are patterns to intuition.

  • When we intuit we tend to think in extremes, (called Law of excluded middle). If there are more than two options any option in the middle is automatically dropped from our attention. We become blind to subtleties. 
  • We also exaggerate the importance of minor flaws or draw overly strong conclusions from minor details, (called Reductio ad absurdum). 
  • Evidence that goes against what we already believe feels wrong (confirmation bias). 
  • There’s our tendency to go with whatever it is we saw first, (anchoring). 
  • We pay attention to whatever has the most dominant stimuli more than we would after closer reflection (Attentional bias). 
“When you expand your awareness, seemingly random events will be seen to fit into a larger purpose.” –Deepak Chopra (New Age guru)

The complete list is quite long and is linked to at the very end of this article. It’s not a flattering read. Yes, it can be trained to get better. But it still won’t beat deliberate introspection. I think I’ve made my point. Intuition is a terrible method by which to make important decisions in life. But that’s not what it’s for. We have the ability to intuit because it’s a quick method by which to make good-enough decisions without taxing the brain more than necessary. Without it we wouldn’t be able to function in our day-to-day lives. Evolutionarily it’s a compromise necessary to keep us alive in tight spots. There are simply too many decisions to make in our ordinary lives for it to be practical to think through every decision in detail.

Intuition also has a place when we are trying to be honest with ourselves regarding our emotional states. We have a tendency to lie to ourselves, to over-think personal issues and rationalise, to decide what we should feel rather than what we actually feel. In those cases using our intuitions and analysing them can be useful for attaining self-understanding. Those usages are not what I’m arguing against in this article.

I’m arguing against seeing intuition as some sort of superior knowledge, “more pure” or better informed knowledge. All research shows that it is inferior compared to deliberate introspection and careful reasoning. And if you think I’m stating the obvious. I can assure you that I am not. I also don’t want you to think that I’m picking on New Age in particular. The problem of overt trust in our intuitions is found everywhere in our societies. Below are some non-New Age examples. 

“Listen to your intuition. It will tell you everything you need to know.” -Anthony J. D’Angelo (musician)

The civil disobedience movement that ended US racial segregation and British rule in India are both a direct result of human intuitions being put on pedestals, and was acknowledged as such by its leaders. More on that later in this article. Martin Luther King didn’t argue against segregation on ethical ground. But because it felt bad… in his heart. Likewise Ghandi wasn’t against British rule because it was inherently racist and undemocratic but because he felt in his gut that self rule for Indians was the right way to go. This was also the theme of the Nüremburg trials of Nazi war criminals. Every human was expected to have an inner conscience that guided us toward doing good. The Nazi War Criminals were bad because they had ignored what we all “knew” their intuitions told them to do.

You might think all of this sounds great. The results sure were for the better. But I base that opinion on ethical grounds. In the above examples, what I am trying to demonstrate, is that they were all examples of instances where we’re expected to listen to the voice of God in your heart, ie our intuition rather than what we thought was the right thing to do by reasoning about it. It simply asserts that everybodies intuitions are the same or similar. But they’re not. We know they’re not.

“If prayer is you talking to God, then intuition is God talking to you.” –Dr. Wayne Dyer (motivational speaker, self-help author)

Intuitions can go either way. Racists have never had any arguments other than that it feels right “in their souls”. That was as true for King’s and Ghandi’s opponents as it was for their supporters. The same can be said about many Nazis. It is also contemporary. I’m thinking of the rampant homophobia in the world today. I’ve yet to hear a coherent argument against gay marriage that doesn’t violate the modern democratic principle of freedom of religion. Yet, that doesn’t stop nominally pro-democratically minded to completely turn off their higher faculties and try to block gays from it anyway. If you think rampant sexism is a problem in this world you can bet that the intuitions of the sexist minded will re-enforce and confirm sexist ideas making the problem worse. That will certainly be the case if sexists are encouraged to open up their hearts, feel inward and listen to what the “universe tells them in their soul”.

“We live in a culture that doesn't acknowledge or validate human intuition and doesn't encourage us to rely on our intuitive wisdom.” -Shakti Gawain (New Age guru)

The biggest problem of arguing for anything on what “your heart” tells you is that, if somebody disagrees with you have no other recourse than violence. As often is the case. There is simply no foundation from which to have any discussion, no room for compromise or mutual respect and understanding.

If all people would stop trusting their intuitions as their prime foundation for taking decisions I’m convinced all extreme right-wing political parties all over the world would disappear tomorrow, as well as homophobia and sexism.

If you only take away one thing from this article it’s the insight that your intuition, although often useful, is an inferior method by which to take important decisions that are in your own best interest.

History lesson

So where did the modern idea that our intuition is a superior form of knowledge come from? Which person did Martin Luther King and Ghandi both name as one of their greatest inspirations? For this we need a little history lesson. A history lesson that I think is especially interesting for religious atheists.

Religions have in all ages been repositories for practical solutions to everyday problems. What we might call wisdom. These were disseminated through society via priests and rituals. Often in the form of taboos. The religious community was a source of strength and practical support in times of need. A much needed safety net.

When the Enlightenment swept the Western world in the 18’th century organised religion was arguably its main target. All figures of authority were attacked, but mainly priests. The role of teaching the lessons on how to live one’s life and approach the world was taught by Christian clergy. Above all, the church had a monopoly on saying what is True. Over time they had transformed this role into power, real political power which they often abused.

The reformation did break the power of the pope to dictate its teachings to the masses. But didn’t do much to change the basic structure of how people learned them. It was still top down from religious authorities according to stiff and often outdated dogma. The Enlightenment wanted to sweep it all away with one fell swoop.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." -Thomas Jefferson (American revolutionary)

Individualism and Self Reliance became the war cries. No longer were we going to bow to the whims of authorities to take advantage of us and exploit us. The church was increasingly seen as nothing but a tool of those in power to control us. We alone would be the master of our lives, and would rely on no support other than from our immediate families.

If we are to stop relying on any external support in our lives, it raises the question of what to replace it with. I think we’ve all have come across moments in our lives where just muddling along as we always have just won’t cut it any longer. The times when we realize that we need to work on some aspect of our lives or be doomed to repeat earlier mistakes. So if not to priests, where should we turn for support and answers to help guide us?

One option is to turn to rationalism. People should learn to think for themselves. Be taught to think critically. Go to universities to learn facts with which to draw their own conclusions. Be guided by what their own reason dictated is ethical. Not be spoon fed ready-made answers.

 “Synchronicity is choreographed by a great, pervasive intelligence that lies at the heart of nature, and is manifest in each of us through intuitive knowledge.” –Deepak Chopra  (New Age guru)

The other path to truth is to follow what feels right in your heart, one’s intuition. As we’ve already discussed, this is simply a bad idea. Yet it came to be extremely influential. In the Enlightenment this is the path that later led to 19’th century romanticism, the reaction against rationalism. To capture the implications of this school of thought I think it will be most informative to pick a few thinkers and focus on them.

In the fledgling state of USA Ralph Waldo Emerson formulated his ideas (Transcendentalism) borrowing from Hindu religious texts to expand Enlightenment ideas of personal liberty. His ideas came to have a powerful influence on the rights and roles of a citizen in a modern democracy. Yes, this is the guy both Martin Luther King jr and Ghandi said was a direct inspiration to their movements. Not only of course. They both had many other role models but both gave a prominent place to Emerson.

In Emerson’s essay Self Reliance he argues against all conformity. Emerson’s concept of self reliance is based on only relying on one’s own interpretation of reality, or Truth. One must turn inward to one’s intuition for guidance, only. Never trust any authority that your gut feeling isn’t okay with. Never accept any hierarchy if you don’t feel okay with it, regardless of where on the ladder you find yourself. And never join a flock where you ever have to compromise. Any and all norms are seen as problematic. If what a teacher tells you in school doesn’t feel right “in your soul”, it should be dismissed.

According to Emerson, how do we know that what our intuition tells us is true really is true? He believed that we all had divinity within us. The all knowing omnipotent God lives inside us all. He called it “The Over-Soul”. As atheists we can dismiss that one out of hand. And it won’t come as a surprise that all thinkers in all ages who have stressed the importance of following one’s intuition has had to fall back on woo. Which in practice means saying; “if you don’t agree with me you just aren’t honest with yourself enough”.

Emerson’s ideas have not only survived into the modern world, they are stronger than ever. Here is a video by the popular New Age spiritual guide Deepak Chopra on this very topic. He simply regurgitates old myths, reconfirming popular and false beliefs. Yet, Chopra managed to write an entire book on it called “The power of intuition”. It successfully ignores all the world’s available research on it. He shamelessly sprinkles it with irrelevant neuroscience to make it sound like it isn’t nonsense. For example, (at 00:22) he mentions that the prefrontal cortex lights up when we intuit. He makes no effort in explaining why this is relevant or what it allegedly proves.

The book that first coined the phrase “New Age” and arguably started the modern movement was “Living in the Light” by Shakti Gawain. This is how she views intuition:

“There is a universal, intelligent, life force that exists within everyone and everything. It resides within each one of us as a deep wisdom, an inner knowing. We can access this wonderful source of knowledge and wisdom through our intuition, an inner sense that tells us what feels right and true for us at any given moment.” -Shakti Gawain (New Age guru)

She repeats throughout the book how our intuitions is a superior form of knowledge without bothering to explain why or how.

Is following one’s intuition bad?

Of course not. If we did that we’d also ignore out feelings. If we ignore our feelings we are bound for a life of misery. it’s healthy to understand and accept that our emotionally loaded intuitions rarely are particularly smart or rational. It’s also important to understand and accept that other people’s intuitions aren’t smart or rational either. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge when people staunchly hold irrational positions. Especially not to their face. Nobody wants to be called an idiot.

“Your intuition will tell you where you need to go; it will connect you with people you should meet; it will guide you toward work that is meaningful for you - work that brings you joy, work that feels right for you.” -Shakti Gawain (gives some good advice for a change)

This is where religions like Syntheism can come in and give us guidance. Again, like religions have in all ages. But today we won’t have blind trust in priests or have to go mining ancient holy texts for the scraps if wisdom that still might be relevant today. Since Syntheists don’t believe church leaders have gained their authority from a god, but based on track-record we have a structure by which to prevent abuses of power. By using insights gained by modern psychology we can incorporate modern therapy methods and mechanics. Over time the wisdom collected in the church will evolve and grow, and yet again be the guide and help we need to protect us from misguided overt trust in our intuition.

Syntheism is still in its infancy, and we have neither priests or any kind of organisation or system that can act to collect and spread collected wisdoms. But it’s my hope that once we’ve now seen the need we will start giving it some serious thought.

Resources for further reading

If you would like to know more here are some links to some actual science. There is quite a large body of research to dig into. The below barely touches on what there is.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intuition_(psychology)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recognition_primed_decision

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sanders_Peirce

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman

Interview with Daniel Khaneman on intuition: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/interview-with-daniel-kahneman-on-the-pitfalls-of-intuition-and-memory-a-834407.html

The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, Gary Klein (2004)

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein (1999)

Decision-Making Barbara A Mellers, (2006)

 C.R. Hamilton Paths in the brain, actions of the mind (1998)

R.W. Sperry “Cerebral Organization and Behavior: The split brain behaves in many respects like two separate brains, providing new research possibilities, 1961

Miller, Charles E., III, Emotional/rational decision making in law enforcement, 2004

 

Measuring Happiness

I think it’s a safe assumption that we all want to be happier. Ok, great. We now know what we want from life. All we need to do now is figure out how to get it. What do we need to do? Are there different ways to be happy? What are the most effective methods reach them?

To figure this out we need to find a language in order to talk about the different ways of being happy. Once we have that down we can attempt to measure it. That is what this article is about. 

Obstacles to measuring happiness

It goes without saying that happiness is subjective as well as relative. It’s hard to compare one person’s self reporting of happiness with another’s. Only you can be the judge of how effective actions and states of mind are in making you happy. Never let anybody tell you what you need to do to be happy. This is something we all simply have to figure out for ourselves. And vice versa. You can’t tell anybody else what will make them happy.

Biology is relevant. Fundamentally happiness is the firing of neurotransmitters in the brain. Our brains are all different. Some people seem to need very little positive reinforcement in the most horrible situations to feel inner peace and joy. Others struggle with seemingly perpetual depressions no matter their fortunes in life.

The philosopher Thomas Metzinger argues that the promise of happiness is the neurochemical engine by which our brains push our bodies to do things at all. This means that whenever we achieve a state of happiness our brains immediately adapt in order for us to be pushed ahead for the next task at hand. We are so-to-speak programmed by evolution to never feel satisfied over any length of time. Therefore it would be folly to even aim for perpetual happiness. By its very evolutionary design happiness is transitory.

The biologist and science writer Matt Ridley makes the same arguments and expands it with the genetic aspect. Triggers for happiness (and pain) has been programmed into our genes by evolution in order to steer us into ways that keep us alive and eventually lead to us spreading our genes. But evolution is slow and this is a very blunt tool for control. Humans are clever and self-reflective. So we are quicker at developing ways in which to fool our genetic programming. To trigger happiness neurotransmitters faster than evolution manage to compensate for it. This we can and do use to our advantage. An example would be condom use for sex or triggering endorphines by watching comedies on television. So we arguably have a greater capacity for happiness than what the basic design was built for.  

We call it aceeeeed

We call it Aceeeeed

So now we know what happiness is for. The next step is to define it.

The definition of happiness

Happiness can be defined in many ways. All useful in their own way. For simplicity I’m sticking to the happiness philosopher Bengt Brülde’s definitions. He separates happiness into the following types:

Euphoria, peace of mind, experiencing pleasure and satisfaction.

Euphoria

An ecstatic intoxication of joy.This type of happiness is associated with succeeding with a long or difficult task in life, like graduating, being in love, finishing a race, getting your dream job or getting long longed for recognition. Can be induced by doing the unexpected and joyful like suddenly racing outside and euphorically dancing in a summer rain. Also the type of happiness we get from using drugs. By it’s nature this type of happiness is rare, ephemeral and fickle.  

Peace of mind

I think we can all agree on that, in general, the less we suffer the better. We have all suffered at some point in our lives and we are all well aware that no matter at what stage we are in life we will most likely suffer some more later on. This knowledge can give us fear and anxiety. In this case there is no solution to the source of the problem. We will suffer. The fear is real and often realistic. The best we can do is manage the symptoms. Religions around the world have come up with solutions.

For example Christians attain peace of mind by praying regularly to God. Why not give it a shot and see if a Christian prayer does the trick for you? I’m pretty sure you don’t need to believe in God in order for their prayers to help you achieve a peace of mind. To get you started here is an example of a popular Christian prayer.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next.

Amen.

/Written by the evangelical Christian Reinhold Niebuhr adapted for use by Alcoholics Anonymous

To get maximum effect from your prayers the evangelical Christians at prayers-for-special-help.com) has offered some advice. I’m presenting them here unbowdlerized:

Set aside a few minutes in the morning or in the evening to pray your devotions to God. Ask God for serenity on a daily basis using this prayer as your guide.

1. Try to memorize the words to the prayer.

2. Speak directly to God. Don’t just blindly repeat the words you’ve memorized. You need to speak directly to Him and truly mean the words you’re speaking.

3. After praying, write your reflections in a prayer journal. Over time you’ll be able to track your progress towards serenity and happiness.

Note! This is not intended to promote Christianity or Christian beliefs in God. This is only as an example of things we Syntheists can steal/borrow/use from other religions. As a Syntheist any reference to a god (or anything supernatural) should be seen and interpreted as a metaphor. If the idea of praying to God makes your atheistic mind uneasy, simply replace those lines with something your secular brain is more comfortable with.

Experiencing pleasure

Good wine, a great massage, the rush of shopping pretty things, eating cake, sitting in a comfortable bath, having an orgasm, a jacuzzi, sinking into a water bed, having a dishwasher, travelling in first class instead of second class, staying at a hotel with wifi by the pool.

The only real problem with this one is that we’ll get used to it no matter the level. To experience this type of happiness we have to deny ourselves our pleasure for a while to miss it, and then indulge again once we’re well and truly starved. It is important for our peace of mind that we are aware of this cycle.

One strategy is to not indulge at all. To opt out of the cycle. Which is what Buddhists try to do. Another is to apply moderation which is the typical approach in most religions. For example, Jews are encouraged to indulge their desires to their hearts content during the Sabbath while abstaining from pleasures the rest of the week.

Satisfaction

When we see newspapers claiming that country X is happier than country Y or people with such and such a job are happier than people with another job this is the kind of happiness that is implied. This is based on surveys and self reporting. People who say they are happy give stuff like this as an explanation; being physically active, having a social life, having close friends, being in a relationship, having a job that is adequately challenging. Being rich sure is nice but is rarely given as a reason for happiness. That comes back to pleasure. We can’t buy friends. Money can buy pleasure. See earlier heading.

The religious typically score high on this simply by being part of a religious community. This is arguably even more important than any of its philosophies or teachings. The mere fact of doing things together, sharing an identity and having a common goal is important for humans and always greatly satisfying.

General principles on maximising happiness.

Don’t have euphoria as your major goal in life, and don’t expect it. It will only come when you aren’t trying to. Be in the moment. Pay attention and do plenty of introspection.  

Peace of mind can be attained through calming one’s thoughts overall. Praying, meditation or mindful physical exercise, (like yoga) are excellent tools by which to still the mind. Try to fit less things into your weekly schedule and set time aside for being alone with your thoughts. But even simpler things like removing clutter from your home. Paint your walls at home with calming colours. Buying plants and take care of them. Or just making sure you’ve got a good house insurance.

People like to be around us and we attract friends by letting go of our ego, our egotism and self centeredness. We have to learn to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around us and be ok with that. This also brings about peace of mind. If all else fails you can always buy a pet.

There’s countless studies that show that by generously giving to others you are also making yourself happier. This is the lesson Scrooge learns in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It’s a popular story because so many can relate. 

The Golden Rule isn’t just for other people’s benefit. You too will become happier if you make a point of treating others like you yourself would like to be treated. If other people take advantage of it, you at least can feel secure in the fact that at least you are overall happier than them. To get respect you need to give respect. 

Indulging in a guilty pleasure is perfectly fine as long as you don’t make it into a habit. Any pleasure we take for granted and is routine will stop making us happy. And longing for something can also be a source of joy. Knowing that we will indulge a certain pleasure once we’ve finished some necessary yet gruelling task. 

So what about measuring happiness? Didn’t I say in the beginning that this article is about measuring it?

Yes, I did. But I must admit that I’m not going to be much help. Happiness is subjective and only you can be the measuring stick of what it is that makes you happy. What do you usually do when you are happy? Or what state of mind are you in then? Are you doing that or feeling like that more or less often  today? If less, what can you do about it? Do you know what to do about it?

Those are questions only you can answer.

/Tom Knox, a member of the Stockholm congregation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_economics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_happiness

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjective_well-being

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoamine_neurotransmitter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Metzinger

http://www.prayers-for-special-help.com/serenity-prayer.html

 

Hello. I’m a Syntheist. This is what I believe

Dead sea scrolls

Dead sea scrolls

Few things make sceptics and scientifically inclined free thinkers nervous as the idea that they might be adhering to any kind of dogma. We all want to avoid the dreaded bane of group-think or risk turning into any kind of brain-washing cult. But any group of people have distinguishing features. That’s why we can identify it as a group. Idea-based groups share common ideas. This should be uncontroversial. We are not open to anybody. We are only open to those who share our beliefs and values. I hope this to is uncontroversial?

I set about trying to identify what these shared beliefs could be. Since these beliefs are intended to be universal for all Syntheists we needed to agree to them. As it happens, free thinking rationalist found it impossible to agree to such a list. Who would have thought?

A herd of cats

Cats resenting being herded

So I gave up on the idea to create a universally accepted Syntheist creed. But I still wanted some sort of a list that Syntheists could get behind. Not an authoritative list from above. But simply something we could point to and show as an example of the kinds of things Syntheists believe. Something tangible and concrete. So instead of our list I created my list:

A Syntheist…

– is a post-atheist. 1)

– is an ethicist 2)

– is a Monist

– accepts that Science is at present the best tool we have to understand reality. 3)

– believes that our understanding of reality is always inter-subjective, that we are individuals and that we can never separate ourselves from our experience of the world. 4 )

– thinks religion can be a positive force in the world.

-believe that religion is primarily about the sacredness of community. 5)

– understand that holiness and divinity is humanly created concepts to answer psychological needs as biological creatures with a symbolic brain.

– finds a personal approach and way through their spirituality, but understand the need for communal action and rites so shares values, direction and connection.

-is aware that each individual is free to join and leave, partake or disagree with any Syntheist group.

Science stand back

Notes:

1)      Post-atheism is an atheist in a world where all theistic belief has disappeared already. It’s a stance on the “Big Questions” that isn’t opposed to anything since there’s nothing for such a stance to oppose. If you don’t like the term post-atheist or you don’t think it’s accurate for you in your situation in life, then you are free to replace “post-atheist” with just “atheist”. You’ll be just as welcome.

2)  Philosophically speaking, Syntheists are ethicists: empowerment through knowledge, community building and creative activity. Ethics comes from logical thinking, rational discourse and inquiries into the human condition: intersubjectivity rather than objectivity.

http://syntheism.org/index.php/2013/05/syntheism-and-ethics/

3) That’s full on science with all the bells and whistles, applied scientific method. No pseudoscience or real science as a fig-leaf for some otherwise crazy beliefs. Furthermore, we are not scientistic. We acknowledge that there is plenty of valuable knowledge the scientific method has little or nothing to say about (ex. ethics)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

4)  A more fancy way of saying the same thing is:

We believe that our understanding of reality is always intersubjective, that we are dividuals rather than individuals, operating under the illusory but necessary experience of the isolated Self, and fundamentally unable to separate ourselves from the continuous and interactive process with the rest of existence.

5)  This belief renders the struggles over God (God vs God or theism vs atheism) an irrelevant conflict.

This list is not  complete and will never be. These are only the most fundamental beliefs that I think identify me as a Syntheist. It should also be pointed out that I received plenty of help from other Syntheists in compiling this list and finding the best formulations. It was, very much so, a group effort.

/Tom Knox,

member of the Stockholm congregation

Pantheos, here we come

A Scandinavian Midsummer celebration

A Scandinavian Midsummer celebration

We’re nearing the summer solstice, Panthea. One of the four major Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox Pantheos. It’s Greek for “God is everywhere”. Since Syntheists accept that all gods are invented, why not invent some more and have gods everywhere? Want a god for the cool touch on the tongue of an ice-cream on a hot summers day? Or how about a god for the fleeting warm and contagious smiles we sometimes get while commuting to work? Now, as a Syntheist, you can have them. I think it suits a season of abundance and plenty.

This season we will focus on light, strength, vitality, joy, passion, pleasure, ecstasy, confidence, optimism and enjoying life to its fullest extent.

Last season I took the season’s concepts and referenced what the existing religions of the world have to say about it. I did the same for Panthea.

PANTHEA

For the joy of living

A woman in Congo speaking in tongues

A Pentacost in Congo speaking in tongues

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Being overly self obsessed and worrying unnecessarily about life’s minutiae. When what we should do, need to do, is relax and enjoy what we already have. Live a little.

To understand how religion can help us with this I think it can be of value to take the plunge into ancient Roman and Greek religion. Please bear with me. I promise it’ll be worth your while. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued being in control of one’s emotions. Overt displays of emotion was generally frowned upon and seen as weakness and a character flaw. But they also acknowledged that too much emotional control was negative to the human spirit. Our feelings needed an outlet. They acknowledged that societies pressures, especially those of the powerful upon us, would corrupt our thinking. Make us overly self-conscious and cowardly. That’s where the worship of Dionysus came in.

Dionysus was seen as a liberator of the spirit, whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees the mind. Today the worship of Dionysus is mostly associated with the excessive orgiastic drinking-parties called “Bacchanalias”. Always held in secret locations. As for the rituals, I’m sorry to say, what happened at a Bacchanalia stayed at the Bacchanalia. We have no surviving reliable accounts other than little snippets here and there.

When blent with the flute light laughters awaken,
And the children of care have forgotten to weep
Whensoever is revealed the cluster’s splendour
In the banquet that men to the high Gods tender
And o’er ivy-wreathed revellers drinking deep
The wine bowl drops the mantle of sleep.

-Euripides (The Rationalists)

On that note, In Vino Veritas isn’t just a funny thing Romans said about drunk people’s inability to keep their trap shut about sensitive subjects. Pagan Romans and Greeks thought genuine wisdom could come from being off-your-tits drunk. It was the ointment that could remove intellectual blockages. I personally suspect that if artists and thinkers all were teetotallers we wouldn’t have nearly as rich artistic heritage as we have today.

Even though we don’t know so much about the Bacchanalias we do have a good grasp of the big annual festival in the honour of Dionysus, called the Dionysia. All today surviving ancient Greek dramas were works especially commissioned for the Dionysia. They were seen as safe outlets for emotions. Once a year Greeks and Romans gathered and were allowed to let all their emotions pour forth while watching the plays. It was socially acceptable and encouraged. Wine, or other mind altering drugs, was seen as a tool in helping them lose control, to allow them to laugh and weep together.

Dionysias wasn’t only watching plays. A good portion of it was singing, dancing and drinking, for days. All day. All night. The culmination was a procession called the “Pompe”. A modern day analogue would be the Rio Carneval. A full on celebration of all that life has to offer.

Roman frieze 100 CE

A Roman frieze of a Dionysian pompe, 100 CE.

Dionysus was also the god of foreigners and the foreign. This was the time to let go of familiar suspicions and allow oneself to be curious. Greeks who usually were so adamant about excluding outsiders from their community and rituals, let them, this one time a year, be a part of their religious celebrations. The foreign was uncharacteristically embraced and admired. An acknowledgement that a rigid mind is stagnant mind.

This idea of having one feast a year where we allow ourselves to go a little crazy isn’t unique for Roman and Greek pagans. In the Hindu and Tibetan festival of Ganachakra the faithful are allowed to eat some foods and drinks otherwise considered taboo for sober vegetarians. A shared communal meal is integral. The transgression of the taboo becomes a shared experience. Reminding them of the importance of community, the importance of sharing our joys and sorrows. Being supportive and allow oneself to be supported by your peers.

A Ganacharka meal in Tibet

A Ganachakra communal meal in Tibet

When was the last thing you did something crazy? Something uncharacteristic of you? Did something just to shock your system? Please remind yourself that life is more than the daily grind of work-life.

So what about ecstasy? What about euphoria? Religion has in all ages been associated with instances of extreme bliss and altered states of consciousness. How can this be achieved? What is it?

Religious Ecstasy

Jessica Ennis celebrates after winning the women’s heptathlon Olympic games 2012

Jessica Ennis celebrates after winning the women’s heptathlon Olympic games 2012

The most common methods of reaching religious joy and ecstasy is singing and dancing. Sufi whirling is a form of physically active meditation. It is a dance performed within a worship ceremony, through which dervishes aim to reach the “source of all perfection”. This is sought through abandoning one’s egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles.

Here is the Mandira Devadasis performing a traditional Hindu Desiattam. Every time there is a religious festival the particular god of that festival is thought to inhabit the statues of that god. A good Hindu host always offer an honoured guest the “sixteen hospitalities” (as defined by the Tirukkuṛaḷ), two of which are song and dance. The take away is that the Hindus don’t acknowledge that they’ve had a good time unless there’s been some singing and dancing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prQOdTmF8u0&list=PLIb9m0R9s9REOx9e6aO-qCL0yEpqAtBaD

We’ve all seen stock footage of traditional African dancing as found in all the West African religions. No, it’s not just performing arts. Dancing and singing is an integral part of all West African religions. They do it for a variety of religious reasons. But always to reach an altered state of consciousness, an improved state. So regardless of the magical hand-waving and supposed woo, it’s obviously good for something. So please feel free to do what I do. Do it for the sheer fun of dancing!

As you might have noted from these videos of traditional religious dances pleasure isn’t only derived by being decadent and indulgent. These dances require discipline and years of training. By being intensely in the moment. Letting go of your ego. By focusing on the expression you are good at, what you’re proud of, without allowing yourself to overflow with pride, you will reach new heights of ecstasy. What are your dreams? What do you want to experience in life? What motivates you? Do that! And do it a lot!

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has labelled this mental state Flow.

“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that it’s almost that you feel that you don’t exist”

When it comes to the beneficial values of singing and dancing there’s no shortage of modern day science to back it up. Considering how uncontroversial this belief is, I don’t feel the necessity to back it up with links to studies. The Internet is awash if you’re curious. The neuroscientist Björn Merker has the hypothesis that before we were thinking talking humans, we were dancing and singing apes. He argues that it’s instinct. We need to sing and dance together in groups with others to be truly happy.

This explains rave parties. This explains singing along at concerts. When was the last time you sang and danced? If it was a long time ago I suggest you just go for it now! Back away from the computer, stand up, take a deep breath and enjoy your body and what it can do!

The ecstasy of saint Theresa

The ecstasy of saint Theresa. What is that angel doing to her?!?

Just relax. Relax. Take deep breaths. Feels better, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, our lives are a stressful grind and what we need to enjoy ourselves isn’t new heights of ecstasy, but just to take break from it all. Focus on the small joys of life. Judaism can help us here. If you thought Judaism was all guilt, duties and joylessness. Think again! On the Sabbath they see it as a religious duty to relax, have fun and enjoy oneself. This includes, among other things, the divine command to drink wine, have sex and not take oneself so seriously. This duty is named “Oneg Shabbat”

Isaiah 58:13-14

“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:

“Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

And you thought Judaism only was about restrictions and discipline? Why not do what the Jews do, relax and live a little.

Ok, I’m stoked. This joy and ecstasy thing sounds like a blast. How can I get some? What are the Syntheists doing about it?

Midsummer

When it comes to researching possible rituals us Syntheists can steal; this is made quite easy as most of Europe Pagan midsummer celebrations have survived to this day, more or less, intact. This falls on the summer solstice, ie the same day we Syntheists have chosen for Panthea. Midsummer is still the largest religious festivals of Scandinavia and the Baltics. Yes, you guessed correctly, the maypole is a symbolic penis used to penetrate mother earth. The raising of the maypole should be seen as a ritual sexual act. The pagans weren’t shy when it comes to pleasures of the flesh. So if you’re in any of these countries, why not just join in the fun with the locals? If not, a maypole isn’t hard to make. 

Happy Panthea! Please try to enjoy your life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

 

References

http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/pr/pr05.htm

http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/Dutch/Latijn/ErasmusAdagia.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysia

http://www.biolinguagem.com/biolinguagem_antropologia/merker_2009_synchronouschorusing_humanorigins.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganachakra

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+58%3A13-14&version=KJV

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/health/07brain.html?em&ex=1163134800&en=8ddde54669058ebc&ei=5087%0A&_r=0

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/aug/05/london-2012-team-gb-medals

 

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.