Monthly Archives: February 2016

What is Religion? Part 3: Enabling Us to Act

Today’s Post

In the last two posts, we have looked at religion as a social attempt and an evolved perspective which helps us to make sense of our surroundings and understand our place in them.  Today we will look at religion in the context of how to conduct our lives in such a way that we (as quoted above by Richard Rohr):

“.. move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction and survival (the fear-based preoccupations of the ‘reptilian brain’), … to proceed beyond the lower stages of human development.”

In other words, to maximize our human potential in our growing, maturing and thriving as persons.

Religion as a Basis for Human Action

From this perspective, religion is whatever concept of reality we work from when we make the decision to act. Before we make a decision, we have to make a little mental trip into the future to look at its probable consequences.  Acting on the decision requires that we have some measure of confidence that the decision will achieve the objective we established for it; essentially faith that the decision will pay off.

Unfortunately, as Robert Goddard remarks, life requires us to make decisions the consequences of which are unknown at the time.  These unknown consequences require even more confidence. So, essentially, one aspect of religion is whatever we believe about reality that gives us the confidence to act, even when, especially when, we’re stepping into the unknown.  Even when, especially when, the unknown appears to be threatening.   To have confidence, and to be able to act on it, we must believe two things:

We are capable of performing the intended action

Reality is such that the success of our action is possible

If we fail to believe either of both of these, it is unlikely that we will try.  This dyad of belief in ourselves and trust in our environment underlies every action we take.

The terms religion and faith from this perspective can be just as secular as religious; neither point of view has a sole claim on our ability to act.  The famous atheist, Richard Dawkins suggests that if we strip conventional religion’s concept of god of its supernatural, magical, and mythological trappings, we can theoretically work towards a secular approach to religion that is equally valid in both worlds.

Religion, Evolution and Human Action

Given this simplistic definition, where does religion fit in to a secular approach to reality?  We have seen in this blog how, as Teilhard sees it:

– Reality unfolds in the direction of increasing complexity

– This complexity manifests itself in different ways in the three (pre-life, biological life, conscious life) phases of evolution but continues as a single thread connecting the past, the present and the future

–   God can be encountered in this phenomenon of increasing complexity as it rises in evolution at both the cosmic and personal level.

If God is to be seen in the upwelling of complexity in evolution, and therefore encountered in the human as our ever-increasing potential (our ‘person’) and measured in our ever-increasing capacity for relationship (the ‘energy of love’), the question must then be asked, “how can this potential and capacity best be realized?”

Key to undertaking this task is the recognition that the full potential for the human person and our relationships is unknown.  Teilhard points out that, while this is surely true, the path toward it can be envisioned by understanding the process by which we have come to be what we are.  From the ‘Big Bang’ to the present day, he understands this process as a spiral which sees:

A rise of complexity of the entity (atoms, cells, persons)

Which is manifested by an increasing capacity for union (physics, biology, love)

By which it is joined to other entities (other atoms, other cells, other persons)

Which in turn leads towards greater complexity and capacity for union (continued evolution)

He sees this dynamic process occurring in each step of evolution, from the ‘Big Bang’ to the human, and continuing in our evolution as individual persons.

From the December 10 Post “The Evolution of Religion, Part 8 : A Relook at Human Evolution”:

“If we see the evolutionary unfolding of entities and energy through Teilhard’s eyes, as leading from more simple things to more complex things which have more capacity for interconnection, then we can extrapolate this continuation of evolution to result in ever more complex human persons and more conscious and skillful cooperation with the energies of human connection.”

This ‘skillful cooperation’ is the cornerstone of basic religion. It is one among the many skills that humans develop to actualize their human potential: the skill of using the human brain to make sense of things and the acquiring of the wisdom to do so.

In other words, valid religion is a basis of both being and acting.

From this perspective, Karen Armstrong notes:

“Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual kernel.  A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact: it is a program for action.”

The “search for the spiritual kernel” opens the door for the fourth and final segment of this blog in which we will take a look at traditional statements of Western religious belief for those important insights about the way we human beings work.

The Next Post

Before we move on to this last segment, however, I’d like to address another aspect of Religion- that of ‘belonging’.


Bibliography for Science and Religion

Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ– Christopher F. Mooney, Image Books edition, 1968

Mooney was a Jesuit priest and contemporary of Teilhard who sought to present Teilhard’s thinking on the great ‘mysteries’ of Christianity, such as the position that Teilhard saw for the person of Christ as the manifestation of the ‘axis of evolution’.

The Phenomenon of Man – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Original English Translation 1959 by W.Collins Sons & Co, LTD; Reprinted in Perennial 2002

One of the two books by Teilhard, this one contains his essential understanding of the rise of complexity from the big bang to the present, and his projection of human evolution as “convergent” upon a future ‘Omega Point’. It also contains his integrative and comprehensive theory of human love as the energy of unification which precipitates the ongoing creation of the human person through ‘complexification’.

Activation of Energy – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Edition 1970 by William Collins Sons & Co, LTD

A collection of unpublished articles by Teilhard which articulates his understanding of Love as the principle energy which ‘unites human persons by what is essential in them to effect maturity’.

Human Energy – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Translation 1969 by William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd

See above

Christianity and Evolution- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Translation 1971 by William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd

This collection of unpublished works by Teilhard reflects his strong belief that the basic tenets of Christianity actually support the view that Evolution effects the creation of the human spirit.

Toward the Future- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Translation 1975 by William Collins Sons, Ltd

More unpublished works by Teilhard which speculate on the future of Mankind based on his understanding of evolution as creative energy.

The Divine Milieu- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Translation 1960 by William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd

The second of the two books by Teilhard, this one focuses on his concept of God and relation to the human person.

The Future of Man- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Translation 1964 by William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd

More unpublished works on the future of the human person.

Hymn of the UniversePierre Teilhard de Chardin, English Translation 1960 by William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd

Excerpts from his other writings.

The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin– Henri de Lubac, English Translation 1967 by William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd

Lubac is another Jesuit priest and contemporary of Teilhard. In this book he shows Teilhad’s basic ideas to be well within the framework of the Christian orthodoxy that he affirmed through his life.

Man Becoming – Gregory Baum, Herder and Herder NY, 1970

This book provides a relook at the writing of Maurice Blondel, who was a French theologian who preceded Teilhard in an attempt to make Catholicism more relevant to contemporary Christians. Blondel is notoriously difficult to read, and Baum provides a more user friendly version of Blondel’s belief that traditional expressions of theology can be reinterpreted into terms of everyday life.

Falling Upward – Richard Rohr

This book offers a view of traditional Catholic teaching that has been reinterpreted in the light of such thinkers as Teilhard de Chardin, in which the basic teachings of Christianity are seen as more authentic in the teachings of Jesus than in the rule-based theology that was heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations – Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation <>

These ‘daily meditations’ articulate Rohr’s reinterpretation of Catholic (and in general Christianity’s) teachings as summarized above.

A General Theory of Love -Thomas Lewis, MD, et al, First Vintage Edition, January 2001

While reducing the phenomenon of human love to merely emotional reactions, this excellent book nonetheless provides a good understanding of human neurology and how it affects behavior, but pays too little attention to the role that reason plays in human relationships.

An Atheist’s History of Belief – Matthew Kneale, The Bodley Head, UK, 2013

While this book espouses an atheist point of view, it nonetheless is an excellent historical overview of the history of human behavior and the rise of religious belief.

Finding Darwin’s God – Kenneth R. Miller, 1999 Cliff Street Books

This book attempts to show that there is little conflict between centrist western religions and the general theory of Darwin’s Natural Selection. Miller sees the conflict basically occurring between materialistic atheists and fundamental Christians, with the middle ground of believers and scientists more comfortable with both intuitive and empirical thinking.

Only a Theory – Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul – Kenneth R. Miller, Penguin Books, 2009

Like his other book (above), this book addresses the danger of such fundamental thinking as Fundamentalism in fomenting an ‘anti-scientific’ mentality in America.

Unweaving the Rainbow – Richard Dawkins, Mariner Books Edition, 2000

This book is Dawkins’ attempt to show the ‘cuddly’ side of atheism: that emotional meaning can be derived from a position which denies the existence of meaning.

The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins, 2006, First Mariner Books

This book is Dawkins’ strongest attack on religious belief. Open any page and his disdain for religious belief, coupled with his elitist view of science, can be seen. Much of his attack is against the irrational manifestations religion, and no small amount can be seen to conflict with other of his viewpoints, such as his disbelief in the evolutionary increase in complexity contrasted by his insight that evolution creates complexity over time.

The Great Transformation – Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knop, 2006

Armstrong shows how the five great human religious movements emerged during the ‘Axial Age’ ( about 900 – 200 BCE)

Fields of Blood – Karen Anderson, Bodley Head Publishers, 2014

In response to the many atheistic accusations that most human conflict arises from religious beliefs, Armstrong asks, “As opposed to what?”

On Becoming a Person – Carl Rogers, Houghton-Miffin Sentry Edition, 1962

Rogers was one of the early “existentialist” psychologists, who believed that it was necessary for the psychologist to be ‘personally present’ to the client, that his personal investment in therapy was itself important to the healing which resulted. This book became an essential guide to what was to become known as ‘pastoral psychology’

The Divine Conspiracy – Dallas Willard, 1998, Harper Collins, First Edition

Dallas Willard is well respected in the Protestant Evangelical community. He provides a balanced view of this complex theological position.

Love- A History, Simon May, 2011, Yale University Press, First Edition

This, and the following three books constitute a small sample of the large volume penned by May. It offers a detailed history of the way human relationships have played out in history, and excellent insight into the evolution of psychology. He goes into great detail on Freud as an early pioneer. This book overviews and summarizes his observations. The next two go into great detail on love in the two eras as reflected in the titles.

The Philosophy of LovePlato to Luther– Simon May, 1966, Random House

The Philosophy of LoveThe Modern World– Simon May, 1966, Random House

The Philosophy of Love– Simon May, 2011, MIT Paperback

Origins – Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Norton Paperback, 2005

Tyson continues the journey of explanation from the TV “Cosmos” series, carrying scientific discoveries up to the present day.

Religion and Science-Historical and Contemporary Issues- Ian G. Barbour, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997

This book is a very comprehensive review of thinking in both the scientific and religious communities. While it leans toward a lack of conflict between them, it falls short of the strong confluence seen by Teilhard.

The Triune Brain – Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

This excellent article details discovery and description of the three layers of the human brain: reptilian, limbic and neo-cortex.

The Great Partnership, Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning – Rabbi Jonathan
Sacks, Schocken Books, 2011

This excellent book traces the evolution of language, culture and religion through the formation of Greece from the near-east cultures about 500 BCE, showing the increasing influence of ‘right-brained’ thinking on what had been centuries of culture dominated by ‘left brained’ thinking. His insights into the re-merging these two currents as can be seen in Christianity offer a basis of understanding religion in the context of human evolution.

A God That Could Be Real, Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet – Nancy Ellen Abrams, Beacon Press, 2015

On the surface, this book would also seem to address the idea that God that can be accessed through science. While offering an excellent explanation of ’emergence’, a phenomenon in which complexity naturally rises from otherwise simple components, she confuses the result with the cause. Limiting God to that which emerges from ’emergence’ simply begs the question of what causes it.

What is Religion? Part 2: The Evolution of Understanding

Today’s Post

Last week we looked at this question from the viewpoint of religion as a way to look at reality and our place in it, but hampered by the diverse and often contradictory manifestations of belief.  This week’s post will continue to address this question by looking at religion from the perspective of Teilhard: by situating it in the context of evolution.

Religion in the Context of Human Evolution

The key characteristic of evolution as it continues in the human, the skill of using the neocortex brain to deal with the primal urgings of the lower limbic and reptilian brains, offers a starting place to look at religion.

As Teilhard has observed, anything totally new (atoms, cells, persons) in the universe initially emerges in the appearance of its predecessor.   The earliest cell, for example, emerges ‘dripping in molecularity’, and operates at the level of the sophisticated, complex molecules from which it evolved.  The trappings of ‘life’ do not appear until much later.  So it seems in the case of the human.  Emerging from the forest of pre-humans, the first human may be distinguished anatomically from his predecessors by the presence of the large neocortex, but otherwise barely so.  It is many thousands of years before humans become aware of their uniqueness, and still many more before this uniqueness begins to be understood objectively.

The history of this evolution of understanding can be found in the human management of the primal urges of the lower brains.  This skill is learned over time and is part of acquired philosophical and cultural behavior.  As Richard Rohr states, this skill is as necessary for our personal evolution as it is for our evolution as a species:

“(It is necessary for us to) move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction and survival (the fear-based preoccupations of the ‘reptilian brain’) … to proceed beyond the lower stages of human development.”

From Society to Self

Initially, religions emerged as a collection of evolved rules necessary for orderly society, and these rules are backed up by belief in supernatural sources.  It is not until the Axial Age (900-200 BCE) (September 17, “The Evolution of Religion, Part 2- The ‘Axial Age’ “) that these beliefs begin to address the human person himself, and philosophical systems begin to emerge to provide explanations.   As Karen Armstrong sees it:

“For the first time, human beings were systematically making themselves aware of the deeper layers of human consciousness.  By disciplined introspection, the sages of the Axial Age were awakening to the vast reaches of selfhood that lay beneath the surface of their minds.  They were becoming fully “Self-conscious””

As she observes, in spite of the many streams of thinking which developed during this brief period of time:

“The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked”.

Some religions, particularly those in the East, are less focused on god or gods, and more on behavior by which individuals can achieve their potential.

Other religions, particularly those in the West, focus more on positing the rules in a personal godhead, and basing religious beliefs on faithfulness to the rules.  Again, from Karen Armstrong, commenting on Western expressions:

 “It is frequently assumed, for example, that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions.  Indeed it is common to call religious people “believers” as though assenting to the articles of faith were their chief activity.”

However, she goes on to say of the Axial sages:

“…they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity.  In one way or the other, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.  The consistency with which the Axial sages-quite independently-returned to the Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our nature.”

As we noted last week: Teilhard understood the need for an understanding of both ‘the self’ as well as this ‘structure of our nature’ from both the scientific and religious perspectives:

“To explain the workings of the universe we must understand the forces and process by which it comes to be, and this understanding must include the human person.”

This simply stated approach to such an understanding is also the basis for beginning to approach God from the perspective of science (“understanding the forces and processes”) and extending this perspective to religion (“including the human person”)

Karen Armstrong also notes that most religions are based on the intuitive belief that the ‘forces’ by which the universe comes to be include a ‘personal’ aspect.  In support of such a synthesis, she cites the earliest (700 BCE) Eastern belief that:

“There is an immortal spark at the core of the human person, which participated in – was of the same nature as – the immortal brahman that sustained and gave life to the entire cosmos.  This was a discovery of immense importance and it would become a central insight in every major religious tradition.  The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being.”

The Next Post

Today’s post addressed the definition of religion in the context of evolution.  Next week’s post will address how belief underlies our ability to act as part of our becoming more what we have the potential to become.