The Problem with Religion

If there is a problem with religion, it is that it has long been a great speculation based on limited knowledge, and the more we know, the more obvious that becomes. The myths of the past were an attempt to orient us in the mystery of life, using patterns and phenomena that we experienced, and necessarily using metaphors and symbols as language for that orientation. Even today in science, we are limited to the use of metaphors because we still find that our mathematical formulas require unseen forces to explain their results. The assumptions we have formulated and hold on to have turned out to be constructs under new circumstances – what a surprise!

The biggest problem, however, is the fact that people are still being coerced, oppressed, beaten, or killed because of their religious ideas. The violence that comes from militancy is based on fear, that primal motivation, whether we fear for ourselves or for others, and tends to show our own split character that wants to be more than our primal feelings allow. Every time it is felt that humanity has made some progress or learned a lesson, we are brutally thrown back to the reality of our split character. There is a reason that the wisest people who have ever lived have called humility wisdom.  “Know thyself, nothing to excess, and certainty brings insanity” remain maxims that we still have, to a large degree, to follow.

Of course, there are other ideologies that are equally disturbing, and just as lethal. Ideologies can be pseudo-religions even if they come from politics or science, and include liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism, theocracy, agrarianism, totalitarianism, democracy, colonialism, and globalism. Some of these ideologies sound reasonable and have guided the world in recent times. Others have been declared bad, and yet they continually rise their heads. Whatever has been dominant, we seem to be in quite a mess with a multitude of problems, suggesting that single ideologies or religions haven’t been the solution that purists have claimed they would be, but the confusion of multiple choices haven’t been either.

I would say that our greatest challenge is to come to terms with the diversity of life itself and the different circumstances it brings, which require a differentiated response. We have just passed a period in history when hard rationalism led to machine-like efficiency, the effects of which are as devastating as letting an out-of-control automatic excavator drive through a botanical garden. We are still suffering the consequences, and so is our planet – the garden. Our rationality has tried to simplify the complexity of life, not understanding that this complexity IS life. The planet as a realm of diversity cannot be anything else, and we exist because of the very inherent seed of diversity.

In the West, where individualism amongst people is almost rampant, diversity is taken to extreme levels, and strangely, also an almost religious adversity towards heresy. The most recent area of conflict is that of sexual preference, of which there seems nothing that the imagination has left out. Men in the West struggled in the first half of the century to accept women as equal and struggled even more to accept homosexuality. It seemed as though when this happened, a door was broken down rather than opened, and all kinds of inclinations came bursting into the public area, demanding acceptance from society and unconditional Inclusion became a new ideology.

This wave of acceptance spread faster than many of us had expected, and the past areas of conflict in which feminists and homosexuals had gained concessions, such as safe spaces and refuges for women suffering under domestic violence, and acceptance that homosexuality wasn’t just a phase that could be altered, were caught up in the deluge. Suddenly women, whether heterosexual or homosexual, found themselves exposed again, with demands being made that they accept that men who ‘identify’ as women be accepted in their spaces, which allowed the predatory perverts access to the victims of their obsessions. The attempts to revoke this were met with aggression typical of inquisition type religious fervour, and the women who were vocal were deemed heretics to the cause. The ugly side of (pseudo-)religion had appeared where one had least expected it.

So, it seems that the doors of convention had a reason for their being closed to certain elements of society, and to use a well-known saying, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Social constructs have a purpose, even if they are not perfect, but above all they are there to protect people who are under coercion and oppression. Of course, in the above situation there are many conflicts going on, not least the continued assertion of men that they have the right to dictate to women, but it seems to me that it also illustrates that the problem with religion is not piety at all, but issues that arise in all areas of communal life. When the religious institutions have had problems, it seems that the aggression of men has had a part to play.

It is probably for this reason that the gentleness of some male figures in religion is so welcome and the occasional religious zeal of women so disturbing. They turn experience on its head to some extent, although we must also consider that the “soft” type of man who is now accepted also has weaknesses in areas where his disagreeableness would be helpful. The accepted behaviour of men has changed over the last 100 years, and as always, not always for the better. I think the religious role models have presented us with this predicament, in which we must find our way out of depending on the situation.

So, religion has its problems, but does it also have its benefits? I think we can answer with a resounding “yes”! Religion still offers us a collection of experiences of the human dilemma, and as long as we understand Scripture as “a finger pointing to the moon” (as I mentioned last time), we can learn to look beyond our immediate experience and become more aware of our interactions with the world. In my experience, this has been lost, largely because of technology, which has made our lives so much faster and more confusing and has shortened our time. We have become lonely in our attempts to avoid discussion and go our own way, and we suspect we are missing something until the next distraction comes along and we are whisked away again. The point of feast days and commemorative days is to slow down, but we’ve neglected that in our busyness and often don’t notice until later in life how the days have vanished like a puff of smoke.

The problem is that religion is so often a bundle of travails, like a ball of yarn that is full of knots. Or it is so redundant and superficial that people detect no need. I often have sympathy for D.H. Lawrence criticism of Benjamin Franklin’s idea of religion:

“It’s a queer thing, is a man’s soul. It is the whole of him. Which means it is the unknown him, as well as the known. It seems to me just funny, professors and Benjamin’s fixing the functions of the soul. Why, the soul of man is a vast forest, and all Benjamin intended was a neat back garden. And we’ve all got to fit in to his kitchen garden scheme of things.”[i]

But it is the neat version of religion that many have in mind. Lawrence saw mankind in its rawness:

“The soul of man is a dark forest. The Hercynian Wood that scared the Romans so, and out of which came the white-skinned hordes of the next civilization. Who knows what will come out of the soul of man? The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it. Think of Benjamin fencing it off!”

However, despite the criticism, Lawrence displays a thoughtfulness that is lacking in many of us. To many, practising religion is just a habit that gets in the way of other, preferable habits, like lying in on Sundays. We also have seen and known the little ladies and men who tried to control others by means of religion, although they were working their own private agendas, and struggling with their own demons. Very few people were genuinely affected by the love of God, and when they were, it stood out as a humility seldom seen.

That is why it is difficult to define religion without fencing people in, intervening in other people’s lives, and disallowing dissention. We have a tendency to seek adherence to convention, which is observable, rather than allowing people their own “special place of tranquillity”, or their “chamber” in which they practise their introspection via meditation, contemplation or prayer in solitude. The latter is clearly what Jesus wanted, and Buddha, and many other personalities of religion, but it has become a feature of modern-day Christianity to only practise at given times together.

Perhaps if religion was allowed to be this personal issue, and we were more aware of the nature of mankind, we could gather with fitting humility, and meet each other as peers, equal in each having our own angels and demons to contend with, and sympathetic towards our common needs. Maybe then we would return to such maxims as “Know thyself, nothing to excess, and certainty brings insanity!”

[i] Lawrence, David Herbert; Lawrence, David Herbert. Studies in Classic American Literature (S.5).

Unitive Consciousness

Religion remained a blank slate for me for a long time in my youth and short encounters left no impression and I wasn’t confirmed either. When I joined the army, I was already looking for a means to leave England, which I found to be restrictive – at least for me. But because the army wasn’t the best place to break out of restrictions, I soon had difficulties, but I had learnt German in school and after making a fool of myself trying to speak the language, I was able to make friends and finally settled there, marrying a local girl. This is when I came back to the church and had a first real conversation with a Pastor. I then bought a Bible and, perhaps curiously, started reading Erich Fromm. In To Have or To Be, Fromm spoke of Marx, Christ, and Buddha, which made me go looking for further reading material. The Bible was a difficult read, and after a while I read more about the Bible than in the book itself.

In the 1980s Alan Watts was the source I needed to conduct more expansive research of what religion is, and he also introduced me to further sources. It was his way of explaining things that had enraptured audiences in America as long as he lived, and this popularity continued through his books and his tapes after his untimely death at 58. I remember passing that age thinking, how much this man had achieved in such a short time. His access to the traditions that were even more foreign to people in the West then was extraordinary, and his ability to explain the variance of perspective was very special.

He explained, “…to get into the unitive world underneath, underlying, and supporting the everyday practical world, there have to be certain alterations in one’s common sense. There are certain ideas—and beyond these ideas, certain feelings—that are difficult to get across not because they’re intellectually complicated—not at all because of that—but because they’re unfamiliar. They’re strange. We haven’t been brought up to accommodate them.” This was especially true of a young man from Britain who had been through a number of schools, unable to settle down to learn, and joined the army in desperation to get out into the world that he had glimpsed in his childhood.

By the time I was 25, after catching up at night school, and having a grand hunger for books, Watts made sense to me, because I had noticed how much convention and habit dominated the way people thought about things. Especially living in Germany by then, speaking a different language, you start to notice things about your own culture that you had seen differently. How much more foreign then, would you encounter culture as foreign to us as in past Asian cultures? Watts explained the differences in ways that everyone could follow, and it echoed several conversations I had with a philologist regarding ancient Hebrew and Greek. It became clear to me that I had been missing a great deal indeed.

One statement caught my attention and changed the way I think considerably: “… there is, here—what I’m trying to explain—a new idea that most people don’t assimilate, and that is the idea of the total interdependence of everything in the world. The Buddhists in Japan call it jiji muge (事事无碍): meaning ‘Between thing and thing, between event and event, there is no block.’ And they represent this, imagistically, as a network.”

He continued, “Imagine a multidimensional spiderweb covered in dew in the morning, and every single drop of dew on this web contains in it the reflections of all the other drops of dew. And, of course, in turn, in every drop of dew that one drop reflects, there is the reflection of all the others again. And they use this image to represent the interdependence of everything in the world.”

I read this after joining a pietistic group devoted to Bible reading, which had taught me much, although I was clearly going through a phase. I had also trained as a nurse, and my experiences with dying patients on a geriatric ward contributed to the multitude of new insights that flooded into my mind. My teacher in nursing school had told me that I was on a journey and that nursing would probably not be enough to satisfy my fascination, but it brought a whole new perspective on life and death. The mingling of these impressions caused a lot of confusion, and internal conflict.

However, the idea of interdependence flooded the biblical world I had occupied for a while, demolishing the idea of a lineal development suggested by the narrative of the Bible, and looking at the meaning between the lines. It also caused me to open up to other traditions and one fascinating read was the exposition of D.T. Suzuki of Genesis 1+2. Meditation and other contemplative practices opened up other venues of thought for me, and soon I was using techniques from traditions that taught unitive awareness and gave me a completely different idea of God. I was listening more than praying to God, trying to open myself to the awareness of unity, to the peace that could also be called love of God, and drop all of those things that prevented that. I tried to discuss these things with people on a discussion forum and found several people who gave me a lot of input.

A misfortune came when I was promoted and became assistant nursing manager in the home where I had started as a trainee, and my loyalty to my way was put to the test. Eventually, I changed employers but became a nursing supervisor myself after my further training, which continued the difficulties I had with loyalty to my staff and responsibilities as a manager, but I did what I could. On top of that, I had become an elder in the local church and became involved in a conflict that hurt my soul. What I had been told earlier that I was on a journey, a spiritual journey was true, and the strife in the institutions I was involved with ran counter to that.

It led to a sudden jolt and effectively a reset for my life, which was difficult for many people around me to understand. I started orientating myself away from conventional Christianity, towards the perennial wisdom of the ages, egged on by authors who seemed to have made a similar discovery. In comparative studies, a shadow started to appear that became clearer as time went on, and it became apparent to me that despite the clear cultural differences of the traditions, there was an underlying commonality. It didn’t make any difference whether there was one God or many gods in the traditions, they were reaching beyond themselves, beyond the metaphors, beyond the symbols that were necessary to fill the ineffable gap that arose when confronted with the ground of being.

As Alan Watts had once quoted, the teacher points to the moon and the student stares at the finger. Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake. Watts also quoted the Buddha who compared his Dharma (teachings, practices) as a raft to help get us to the far shore, there to be abandoned. Jesus said, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it … Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do…” He was also pointing beyond himself, but the church gazes at him.

Much later I came across a young man who connected the world of science with a metaphysical worldview: Bernado Kastrup. He showed in his books that he was far from being the first to discover what he had discovered, but because of the lack of unified language, it was not considered as a unifying theory. In his books[i][ii][iii] he attacked the materialism that had been the common stand and still is and stated that consciousness does not arise from matter. He had hit upon this when, as a computer scientist, he considered the possibility of a conscious artificial intelligence and concluded that there was no way to create an artificial intelligence that could be as conscious as a human being. Therefore, as a consequence, consciousness must be the basis of all that is and not material. He showed how many people had come to a similar conclusion, despite the rejection by the scientific community.

Suddenly the idea of unitive awareness came flooding back, the common denominator of the world traditions. It was when I was reading Mark Vernon’s A Secret History of Christianity[iv] that I thought, yes there is something in what he was saying that could point what we have discovered in unitive awareness in Christ. He writes about the “Oxford Inkling”, Owen Barfield, who realized that the human experience of life shifts fundamentally over periods of cultural time. Our awareness of things evolves even in a lifetime and human consciousness changes dramatically across history. He proposed that it happens in three phases:

  1. Original Participation
  2. Withdrawal of participation
  3. Reciprocal participation.

Original participation is the experience of humanity at a time when it was caught up in the drama of existence, living at the level of the collective, with little distinction between inside and outside, experience and perception, and a with a continuous flow between what is “me” and “not me”. “Early man did not observe nature in our detached way,” Barfield writes. “He participated mentally and physically in her inner and outer processes.” Vernon concludes, “It’s in the waves of emotion that sweep across a crowd as, then, there’s a temporary dissolution of the boundaries between the individual and others. It’s an experience that’s akin to stepping back in time.”

Another way of putting that is to say that, is when a state of unitive awareness is achieved, the ‘I’ is transcended, and a sense of consciousness is created in which no such dichotomies are present. In other words, unitive awareness is non-dual consciousness which transcends any sense of individuality, and that is at one with the universe. As examples of such an original participation, which I would also see as remnants of non-duality Vernon says, “Consider the words “wind” and “spirit.” It turns out that in ancient Greek, as in many other old languages, there is a single word that means both “wind” and “spirit.” [The Hebrew word ruach means “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.”] It is pneuma in Greek and it’s a relic from previous times. It’s a linguistic fossil from the undifferentiated consciousness of original participation because back then, the material world mingled with the immaterial; outer with inner; mortal with immortal; wind with spirit.”

Iain McGilchrist in his book The Matter With Things[v] suggests that when humanity hadn’t yet developed its left-brain hemisphere, it lived much like the animals with the right hemisphere immersed in the wider picture, on the alert primarily for danger or food. The left hemisphere was employed to differentiate possible threats or food sources[vi], which gave the right hemisphere the information needed for the next course of action. This relationship he said was between a “master and his emissary”. This seems a lot like original participation, in which human beings were immersed in their experience and myths, which were the same to them, because the left hemisphere hadn’t taken on the role that would develop.

In contrast, in most areas of human consciousness today, any person is thinking about themselves and their relationship with the world, their spirituality and the wider universe, there is a dichotomy between the person and everything else, and in many Western religions, you have heaven and hell, good and evil, or sin and grace. This seems to me to point to the fact that many people are in the second phase that Barfield was speaking of, that is the “withdrawal of participation.” It’s the period during which quasi-scientific ideas about the cosmos began to be formed.

To begin with only some humans turned away from an exclusive reliance on myths as their interests changed from sharing in life to explaining life. Vernon says, “It was a troubling time, though, with the withdrawal of participation came an astonishing gain. The concentration of inner life that the separation from outer life brought came hand in hand with an intensification of the sense of being an individual, and with that came all manner of novel possibilities. Moral responsibility emerged, as did new relationships with deities. In the West, this moment is identified with the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece and the emergence of new religious imperatives from the Hebrew prophets.”

Of course, this isn’t a one off, linear development. Iain McGilchrist points out that there have often been waves of varying awareness, which he sees as a variation between the dominance of either the right brain hemisphere or the left. He says that when we habitually allow the left hemisphere to take over and thereby neglect the right hemisphere, a detachment takes place that resembles the left hemispheric dominance and loses the broader inclusivity of what Barfield calls original participation, and which tends to lose the aesthetical appreciation of the world, which is largely a right hemisphere issue.

But we probably can’t clearly make a clear divide but must notice the wave-like movement of history. For example, unitive awareness or non-dualism (or original participation) is present in some aspects of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, to name but two traditions. You find examples of it in some Christian mystics, and the same can be said of some minor Jewish sects, as well, but it is also apparent that this thinking was marginalised. However, the prevalence of Greek philosophy, which was in a large way due to its preservation by monasteries where texts were copied, has continued to have an influence on modern thinking, which of course is not all negative. Terminology, techniques, and categories developed in ancient Greece became the standards by which later philosophical discourse was conducted. As a result, virtually all questions of truth, ethics, worldview, and morality are still discussed using the basic principles of Greek philosophy.

I found that the books I have mentioned were popularising in their own way the re-discovery of unitive awareness which, following many before us like marginalised groups such as the mystics, is what Barfield termed as “reciprocal participation,” in which the individual is able to reflect the inner life of nature and even be taken back by the realisation that all is one after all. It isn’t a return to original participation, but a synthesis born out of original participation and the withdrawal of participation, which McGilchrist sees as the healthy functioning of our brains: the original participatory observation of the right hemisphere is passed to the withdrawn left hemisphere, which analyses everything, gives it a name and passes it back to the right hemisphere, which is now capable of reciprocal participation. The awareness of participating in life still involves shared rites and ceremonies, but these are undertaken freely and consensually, not simply because of convention, and an “inwardness” as we know it is born.

Vernon says, “Spiritual freedom, though, is the liberty to realize what is truest in us, to see the “human form divine,” to use William Blake’s phrase – the twoness, which Blake said enables “double vision.” It is the freedom to move from an involuntary, often conflicted embroilment with the powers and principalities of original participation to a conscious, active union with God under reciprocal participation. “There is a spirit in the soul, untouched by time and flesh, flowing from the Spirit, remaining in the Spirit, itself wholly spiritual. In this principle is God, ever verdant, ever flowering in all the joy and glory of his actual Self,” as Meister Eckhart saw it.

But as McGilchrist observes, the development is not linear, and Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century, “The Word of God became a man so that from a man you might learn how to become a god.” Here we have a return to dualism as an interpretation of the non-dualistic statements of Christ that, “I And My Father Are One!” Jesus was accused of blasphemy and Clement is trying to avoid the same accusation, although coming close to what he said.

By dwelling in one, the Word dwelt in all,” discerned Cyril of Alexandria in the third century, which came closer, but in the fourth century, Athanasius of Alexandria returned to “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” I see the struggle with the non-duality of Christ’s realisation that he is one with God as an influence of the left hemisphere, or withdrawal from participation, which stays in the analysis and the rhetoric, and fails to grasp the reciprocal participation of oneness. This may be due to a feeling that can arise sooner or later with anyone who experiences Oneness, that they also feel that there is no real point or purpose to life. The reciprocity of the experience eludes them.

I have sometimes had the feeling in my own experience that while the practice of non-duality can smooth out life and give us calmness, composure, and serenity, it can sometimes be an excuse for escapism or a reason to remain detached from life. Some use the phrase to “be in the world, but not of it,” but it’s also easy to unknowingly cross a thin line where we’re no longer in the world – we have moved to withdrawal of participation without realising it. Reciprocal participation, on the other hand, is about the “double vision” of Blake, indicating that mere simple sense perception is not enough for reliable interpretation of the meaning of the world. As Northrop Frye says in his book The Double Vision, language and meaning in religion, “the conscious subject is not really perceiving until it recognizes itself as part of what it perceives.”

Our society tends to be kept in the withdrawal of participation by the structures it has created, by the deputation of aspects of life, and by the fascination with analysis and rhetoric. The entire media landscape is geared to disseminating opinions and statements to which others are obliged to respond. It is geared to provoke reactions, be they emotional or physical, and yet has nothing to do with real participation because it is superficial and is not engaged in securing the continued existence of society in the wider picture (right hemisphere).

Perhaps Watts, Kastrup, Vernon and McGilchrist are doing what they can to make us aware of what we are missing.







Who runs the world?

In 2016, the Financial Times reported in an article[i] that it is Goldman Sachs that runs the world, and quotes its American but also international connections, which include all the major leaders of the world. Goldman Sachs is an American multinational investment bank and financial services company headquartered in New York City. Some have spoken of the Goldman Sachs Oligarchy, and a “dark role” that it plays in the world. Robert Reich, professor of public policy wrote on the Berkley Blog[ii] in 2019 that 2020 was about oligarchy versus democracy and listed a number of “democratic oligarchs” including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and hedge fund giants like Bridgewater, Renaissance Technologies and Elliott Management, who were investing in the democratic process.

A number of critics, including John Light on have spoken out about the political influence that rich Americans wield[iii], using the word “plutocracy” (from Ancient Greek πλοῦτος (ploûtos) ‘wealth’, and κράτος (krátos) ‘power’) or plutarchy, which is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income. The first known use of the term in English dates from 1631. Unlike most political systems, plutocracy is not rooted in any established political philosophy.[iv]

The term plutocracy is generally used as a pejorative to describe or warn against an undesirable condition. Throughout history, political thinkers and philosophers have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict and corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.[v]

Historic examples of plutocracies include the Roman Empire, some city-states in Ancient Greece, the civilization of Carthage, the Italian merchant city states of Venice, Florence, Genoa, the Dutch Republic and the pre-World War II Empire of Japan (the zaibatsu). According to Noam Chomsky[vi] and Jimmy Carter[vii], the modern United States resembles a plutocracy though with democratic forms. A former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, also believed the US to be developing into a plutocracy.[viii]

One modern, formal example of a plutocracy, according to some critics,[ix] is the City of London.[x] The City (also called the Square Mile of ancient London, corresponding to the modern financial district, an area of about 2.5 km2) has a unique electoral system for its local administration, separate from the rest of London. More than two-thirds of voters are not residents, but rather representatives of businesses and other bodies that occupy premises in the City, with votes distributed according to their numbers of employees. The principal justification for this arrangement is that most of the services provided by the City of London Corporation are used by the businesses in the City. In fact about 450,000 non-residents constitute the city’s day-time population, far outnumbering the City’s 7,000 residents.[xi]

In the New Statesman bonus edition, the question was asked whether the world will end its addiction to growth, citing the findings of the Club of Rome in the 1970s. “In 1972 the Club of Rome published the Limits to Growth report: a pioneering document on the extent to which the Earth’s natural resources can support rates of industrialisation and population growth.”[xii]

50 years later, the impact of this report and what is happening to create a new social and economic paradigm to help the world’s population live in harmony with the environment has been examined. According to the New Statesman, there is little evidence that the world has taken note. There was a long article in the Harvard Business Review in 2017 suggesting strategies that could “cure” the addiction to growth[xiii], but there is no indication that Wall Street and a capitalist culture that’s obsessed with growth has changed.

There is a widespread ideology that to be the bedrock of wellbeing, inclusive growth has to be pursued, which means the improvement of conditions of the poor not through a redistributive policy, but through a broad involvement of the work force in the economic activities, which ideally makes it sustainable. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that inequality and economic exclusion are becoming widespread which could thereby threaten economic growth.

In a paper[xiv] which examined the incentives for an “educated oligarchy” to subsidise the education of the poor and initiate a democratic transition and concluded that initial per capita income has a positive or negative effect on the likelihood of a country becoming a democracy, on its average growth rate at a given point in time and on the speed of democratisation of countries in transition. Therefore, if democracy is a desired outcome, an “educated oligarchy” should invest in education to increase its average growth rate. However, the also note that this isn’t always the desire of a “ruling class” because first of all the investment can be costly, and secondly there is a danger that the educated population of a country could want to change the status quo and the oligarchy would therefore avoid such a conflict.

So, the question who runs the world seems clear to many people, but we must ask ourselves whether this is because we believe in the structures that we live in and thereby actively support them. A number of developments have meant that the economy no longer serves human society but rather humans live to serve the economy and those that drive it. Indications of this are found in many issues that trouble us today.

One area that has completely confounded people working in areas where the impacts will be greatest is the largely successful efforts of multinationals to prevent meaningful action on climate change. Although this has been an issue for many decades, the combined efforts of business, political parties and tabloids have managed to turn the discussion into a debate about who is responsible rather than what needs to be done. It doesn’t matter who is responsible unless it is to identify the climate impacts that we can change. In Europe, because of the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine war, there is a move towards renewable energy as a means of achieving independence that might never have happened without the conflict.

Globalisation has been a driver of high-intensity, high-tech, property-restrictive agriculture that excludes small farmers who have fed the majority of the world’s population for centuries, if not millennia. Farmers in former colonies like India in particular experienced terrible times, causing widespread suicide because their rice was no longer needed. The industrialisation of agriculture meant that traditional producers could no longer compete, and rice (and other commodities) were imported because they were cheaper. Now the generations that have the necessary know-how have largely disappeared and we are dealing with a very unstable distribution chain that could collapse under the pressure of large-scale conflicts, as we are experiencing in Ukraine and possibly in other countries.

There is widespread collusion between governments and companies to take control of land and natural resources away from communities in order to make profits for investors who do not even live in the country. Water and crops are often made available for export in order to obtain foreign currency that governments can use to trade on the world market.

Europe attempted to legislate[xv] to prevent the so-called “race to the bottom” between governments that forgo revenue through blanket “tax exemptions” to attract foreign investment, even when the benefits are unclear or negligible. The loss of tax revenue and the strain on the road and rail network puts governments in the position of providing a service to companies that do not invest in the country by paying taxes while raking in huge profits. Brexit was a reaction to Europe’s intention to secure financial services contracts in the UK, which didn’t quite work out.

Governments around the world continue to fail to enact laws that protect workers from abuses ranging from human trafficking to inadequate wages to unacceptably risky working conditions, with women in the most precarious, low-paid and inhumane jobs. In addition, there is no recognition of the systematic abuse of women’s rights in many areas – but especially the enormous, unpaid support that women provide to all economies with their unpaid and poorly paid care work that keeps families and societies running. Above all, the use of coercion, including violence, by powerful elites in private corporations, fundamentalist movements and repressive regimes to control women’s bodies and sexual and reproductive choices, their work, their mobility and their political voice is a huge problem.

Globalisation put pressure on countries (and more recently the collusion between governments and corporations) to change trade and consumer protection laws so that foreign companies can dominate markets. This has been especially apparent recently in Britain because of the rise in prices, especially when looking at who owns the privatised public services like railway, waterways and postal services. Of course, in other countries it is equally an issue.

In Britain, it has been noted how public schools (which are not for the public but private fee-paying secondary schools, especially ones for boarders) profit from the system and finance privatised schools at the expense of decent public education, even though there is no evidence that the results will benefit anyone but the owners. Public schools actually outperform private schools, and with less money.[xvi]

These are indications how plutocratic forces influence the world we live in. The “client press” also helps spread the indoctrination that suggests the opposite, but it is becoming too obvious recently that this is going on. You only have to go to the sources I’ve mentioned to check. The question of course remains, whether we can do anything about it, especially to correct the injustices listed above, a list which is far from exhaustive. The collusion between multinationals and governments are one thing, but there is growing concern that America and Britain have fallen under the influence of forces that are set upon changing the face of society, which would mean less “democratic oligarchs” and perhaps more of the kind we have in Russia or China, ruled by an authoritarian government. We will have to be wary of developments in this area and 2024 could be a crucial election year.

[i] Quoted here:



[iv] the following sources quoted on Wikipedia:

[v] Viereck, Peter (2006). Conservative thinkers: from John Adams to Winston Churchill. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. pp. 19–68. ISBN 978-1412805261.

[vi] Chomsky, Noam (6 October 2015). “America is a plutocracy masquerading as a democracy”. Salon. Retrieved 13 February 2015.

[vii] Carter, Jimmy (15 October 2015). “Jimmy Carter on Whether He Could Be President Today: “Absolutely Not””. Retrieved 13 February 2015.

[viii] Sorkin, Andrew (23 October 2018). “Paul Volcker, at 91, Sees ‘a Hell of a Mess in Every Direction'”. New York Times. Retrieved 28 October 2018.

[ix] Atkinson, Rowland; Parker, Simon; Burrows, Roger (September 2017). “Elite Formation, Power and Space in Contemporary London”. Theory, Culture & Society. 34 (5–6): 179–200. doi:10.1177/0263276417717792. ISSN 0263-2764

[x] Monbiot, George (31 October 2011). “The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest”. The Guardian. Retrieved 1 November 2011.

[xi] René Lavanchy (12 February 2009). “Labour runs in City of London poll against ‘get-rich’ bankers”. Tribune. Archived from the original on 15 January 2015. Retrieved 17 January 2015.



[xiv] Journal of Development Economics Vol. 62 2000 285–313, Francois Bourguignon & Thierry Verdier, Oligarchy, democracy, inequality and growth, © 2000 Elsevier Science B.V



Gratitude as basic Religion

I wanted to continue my look at religion, albeit from a conformist point of view, especially with regard to ecological spirituality and gratitude.

It has been argued that religion came first and then economic, political and agricultural activities, but religion is an expression of gratitude and is associated with perceived benefits. In Psalm 141:2, the singer sings, “Let my prayer be as incense before you,” which is a form of thanksgiving. In the three book religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are many accounts of praise and thanksgiving, and believers learn that gratitude is received by God in the way the psalm singer expressed themself, namely as a sweet smell, like that of incense or frankincense. According to the Vedanta tradition, “An acute awareness of the infinite blessings showered everywhere followed by gratitude would constitute the fundamentals of devotion.” We set aside a specific time of the day – prior to a meal, directly before morning study, etc – and spend a few minutes ‘counting our blessings.’

The fact that early humans, like some animal species, had rituals around dying and burial is considered the earliest sign of religious ideas is understandable, but this is linked to the idea of loss, just as birth can be understood as gain, which are certainly very basic sensations. The same is true for finding a source of food or water or shelter. It is quite fundamental for us to see the fulfilment of physiological needs as essential and, as Maslow hierarchy of needs shows, the safety aspect is equally important. It is therefore not surprising that gratitude should be an important aspect of religion, especially considering the awe-inspiring majesty of the night sky.

So, the question arises: for what were they grateful? Essentially, I would say they were grateful for the fact that the seasons are ordered and that if they take advantage of what they observe in nature, they can bring in a rich harvest. It isn’t hard to imagine people adding 1 and 1 together and asking why this is so. The traditional assumption that the idea of gods arose through experiences like lightening and thunder seems so primitive to me in comparison to the progress of understanding that nature has laws that help human beings to provide themselves with what they needed. Today the intelligent design theory is ridiculed, however a real empirical experience is that we are so much a part of our environment, that all our needs are satisfied by it – and perhaps more than we currently know.

It seems to be a sign of our civilization that mockery is considered a sign of superiority, while all the great traditions of the world have praised the child’s wonder at everything he discovers. Buddhism, for example, praises the beginner’s mind and advises us to be inspired by children. For a child, almost everything is new, and he approaches these situations with wonder. It is not surprising, then, that the term “primitive” is used pejoratively today, but the fact is that primitive peoples had to discover or master much of what we take for granted by inventing tools that have long been part of our heritage. The fact that religious scriptures use antiquated descriptions and explanations for what they discovered is really a sign of intelligence, and an indication of how imaginative they could be. What they had, and what we lack, is a sense of gratitude.

In the growing climate crisis, which will not go away and isn’t less of a crisis if people believe that humankind didn’t contribute to it, we will see how developed we are, and how our civilisation is equipped to cope with failing harvests and widespread famine. There has been a concern for some time that our supply structures are stretched, and our ability to react to local disasters that involve our food chain isn’t certain. Just-in-time policies mean that we are already struggling due to the conflict in the Ukraine, and the world is reliant upon a few suppliers who dominate the market. The rice-market was destroyed by globalisation, so that those fields that could have supplied rice in an emergency are no longer used, and the generations who had the expertise are dying off.

It is a sign that the ancient message of some religious traditions that it is our destiny “to eat our food by the sweat of our brow until we return to the earth” may contain an uncomfortable truth. Industrialization and the “rural exodus,” i.e., the migration of many people from the countryside to the cities in search of work, have taken us out of the natural order, which we assumed was a sign of our resourcefulness. But it has had several effects, including a lack of identification with nature and a loss of understanding of how much we depend on the health of the soil beneath our feet and the water in our rivers. Our environments are often so covered by tar, stone, and cement, that we have no idea what is under our feet. We inadvertently burn our woods and grasslands with disposable grills in summer – especially when we have a heat wave like at present – and are oblivious to the death of wildlife, insects and organisms that we need to live, let alone the damage to the environment.

 I believe that religion has, in the first place, to do with environment awareness and gratitude. The “grace” prayer before meals is an exercise in becoming aware of what we have, and that we are somehow dependent, which is looked down upon by people who aspire to be independent. That is a prime motivation for rejecting religion, although there are good reasons for criticism of religious institutions and dogmatism. If we could return to this “primitive” aspect of religion, which is virtually saying, “I don’t know who I have to thank for my life, or what I eat, drink, for my clothes, for the house I live in, but I want to express my thanks,” we might come to appreciate the planet we live on, and how important it is to work to keep it healthy.

It could lead us to an awareness of how everything holds together as a unity of life in the midst of this vast universe and help us overcome the difficulties we face. One aspect of these difficulties is the extreme narcissistic greed that comes out when our role on the planet as seen by traditional religions is proposed. Religion has always pointed to the special role we have as stewards and caretakers, even if less has been made of it and the resulting religious dogma seems to be more about elitism and exclusivism than integration. Looking at the large cool buildings from centuries past that have served as churches, there is a sense that they have been misused as sites of bigotry and chauvinism rather than as places where people can find healing and refuge. I attribute this to alienation from the environment and estrangement from the natural order of things.

That is why I believe that religion must be deeply concerned with the environment, and not as a separate entity, but as an extension of who we are. Alan Watts famously said that we don’t come into, but “out of the world.” We are a kind of fruit of the world, which was picked up in the New Testament, when Jesus was described as the first fruits of the harvest. Of course, we are talking about metaphors, objects, activities, or ideas that are used as symbols of something else, which in our case is non-graspable. That is the language of religion, and there have been people of science trying to allude to that underlying reality, to break through the metaphor, and present us with new metaphors – because we can’t do without.

They point to consciousness, not merely personal but universal, as a ground of being out of which everything transpires. “Inspired by Indian philosophy, [quantum physicist Erwin] Schrödinger had a mind-first, not matter-first, view of the universe. But he was a non-materialist of a rather special kind. He believed that there is only one mind in the universe; our individual minds are like the scattered light from prisms.”[i]

Abhinavagupta, one of the greatest Indian philosophers, mystics and aesthetes is reported to have said, “Absolute consciousness is manifest here in every circumstance of daily life because it is everywhere full and perfect. Consciousness is said to be the cause of all things because it is everywhere emergent as each manifest entity.”

Alan Watts was the opinion that we don’t appreciate these ancient insights because, “We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between a causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin a French Jesuit, paleontologist, anthropologist and philosopher, said “There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfilment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”

Finally, there are grand similarities in religions that are often overlooked.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

“The Logos, the “only begotten of the Father,” was “made flesh” in Jesus Christ. In the Vedas (most ancient of the world’s scriptures) we find passages which are almost identical with the opening sentence of the Gospel according to St. John, “In the beginning was the Lord of Creatures; second to him was the Word.” “The Word was verily Brahman.” According to the Hindus, Brahman conditioned by maya, his creative power (which is the basis of mind and matter), is first manifested as the eternal undifferentiated Word, out of which the concrete sensible world then evolves. To the Hindus, therefore, the Word is incarnated in all beings, each of whom may directly realize God through the divine power of the Word. But like St. John, Hindus believe that in a special sense the Logos is made flesh in the avatar-the avatar being the descent of God, whereas the ordinary man ascends towards God.

There is this important difference between the Hindu and Christian concepts of divine incarnation: Christians believe in a unique historical event, that God was made flesh once and for all time in Jesus of Nazareth. Hindus, on the other hand, believe that God descends as man many times, in different ages and forms.”

Swami Prabhavananda. Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta


What is Religion?

Why is this question so important? It is important because it is widely believed that religion is a thing of the past and that people “don’t need” religion. We still use the word “religious” to refer to something that is done with utmost conscientiousness and conscientiousness, but the connection of religion with what is responsible and careful is no longer made. Rather, it is seen as something old-fashioned and antiquated. A vague idea of something higher is retained in certain circles, but its vagueness is valued because it keeps it inaccessible and by no means authoritative.

You hear people complain that “Nothing is sacred anymore!” But what is sacred? What does that mean? It used to mean something worthy of respect or dedication, or perhaps something believed to be holy, and worthy of veneration. But do we actually understand these words anymore? Have they not become hollow? It would be important to find out what is worthy of respect or dedication, because that seems to be missing in public life. Newspapers and other media seem to be full of cynicism towards what some people respect, and figures in entertainment or sport are venerated by some and hated by others.

Someone on Wikipedia wrote: “The history of religion refers to the written record of human religious feelings, thoughts, and ideas.” Another has written: “Religion is usually defined as a sociocultural system of particular behaviours and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sacred places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations that humanity generally associates with supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements; however, there is no scientific consensus on what exactly constitutes a religion.” But sociocultural systems of behaviours and practices can be political belief systems, or belief systems around any issue deemed to be important, in which facts are secondary to beliefs.

So, is religion simply what people believe, and as diverse as the number of people on the planet? For surely people are variously influenced, not only by external pressures, but also through individual experience and perception? This will be true most of all of the West, where individuality is held to be extremely important, whereas many other countries have adopted a collectivist attitude, by which the majority, or some institution is authoritative. This may mean that the concept of religion is different, depending on whether one has been brought up in an individualistic or a collectivistic society. What does that say about Westerners attracted to Eastern religions?

This makes it clear that the definition of religion is hard to pin down, which means that we don’t really know what it is, but that it is certain aspects or practices of religion that we generally consider antiquated or old-fashioned when we are critical of religion. I, for example, have always disdained American evangelism and evangelism. As a Brit, I always felt it was an intrusion on my freedom, although I didn’t mind talking about religion and exchanging ideas. I also felt that there was something about Christianity that we did not understand, something that our modern culture could not uncover. Of course, I had a similar feeling when I read Buddhist or Hindu texts, which I felt were long-winded and didn’t get to the point. It was something like feeling that an idea was “on the tip of my tongue,” as we say, but I just couldn’t grasp it.

When I read Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter with Things” recently, he pointed out that we get excited by facts that we can grasp, that are clear and unambiguous. The problem is that this is only true in a particular setting, and when we try to apply these facts to everyday life, to a broader setting, we struggle to do so. Religion also has this effect, and statements of faith often clash with our everyday experience when applied literally. McGilchrist points out that poetic truth has a similar effect: it speaks loudly and clearly to our emotions, but as soon as we consider the metaphors used rationally, we realize our folly. Obviously, truth has different facets and can be true in one context but make no sense in another.

Perhaps this has been our problem with religion. Certainly, the scientific community has ridiculed the worldview of religious texts, with its reference to spirits and demons, or its cosmology. However, some “physicists have envisioned definite sympathies between science and religion, and sought to creatively deploy them in order to accomplish a diverse set of goals, sacralising science and invoking the themes and rhetoric of religion.”[i] Erwin Schrödinger, father of Quantum Mechanics and a Vedantist wrote in 1925: “This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as “I am in the east and the west, I am above and below, I am this entire world.”[ii] This was an autobiographical essay, in which he explained that his discovery of quantum mechanics was an attempt to give form to central ideas of Vedanta which, in this indirect sense, has played a role in the birth of the subject.

As we can see, it isn’t necessarily Christianity, Judaism or Islam that provides religious inspiration, as we in the West often presume, and Swami Prabhavananda (December 26, 1893 – July 4, 1976) an Indian philosopher, monk of the Ramakrishna Order, and religious teacher, wrote a book stating that what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount is the same teaching a Vedantist follows. The British writer and novelist Aldous Huxley wrote The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of mysticism, and attempted to present mysticism as the “Highest Common Factor” of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine.[iii] Werner Heisenberg, another “father” of quantum physics who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1932 is quoted as saying, “The first gulp from the glass of natural science will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”[iv]

This obviously has gone against the common view that is widespread today, but it shows that religion isn’t just what many people believe, and that this may be because many adherent religious people take too little time to really investigate what their religion is about. It is also a question whether their Religion actually helps them in their understanding of their lives, or whether it is a distraction that takes their attention off of what is going on around them.

Years ago, I found Jack Kornfield, an American author and teacher in the Vipassana movement in American Theravada Buddhism, as well as having a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, to be a wonderful source of peace in his book, A Path With Heart: The Classic Guide Through The Perils And Promises Of Spiritual Life, in which he spoke about the problems that people have with spirituality and faith.

He writes as a conclusion to his own struggles, “To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous courage and strength, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place of this warrior strength is in the heart. We need energy, commitment, and courage not to run from our life nor to cover it with any philosophy – material or spiritual. We need a warrior’s heart that lets us face our lives directly, our pains and limitations, our joys, and possibilities. This courage allows us to include every aspect of life in our spiritual practice: our bodies, our families, our society, politics, the earth’s ecology, art, education. Only then can spirituality be truly integrated in our lives.”

I felt that this was missing in what I had experienced, and in 2002 I started meditating, which was seen critically from many of my peers, but I learnt what Kornfield says, is “a very basic lesson in meditation: facing our own greed, unworthiness, rage, paranoia, and grandiosity, and the opening of wisdom and fearlessness beyond these forces.” This helped me cope with a number of demons that I seem to have brought with me from childhood and put me back on my feet when my strength and above all, my faith was waning. Without this experience of rebuilding and regeneration in times of great stress, religion has no attraction. However, to get there requires the commitment Kornfield spoke of.

Another aspect of that seems to have been typical for our individualistic and consumerist age, has been the question, what do I get from it? Many were attracted by the promise of exalted states of awakening and enlightenment, and followed gurus to achieve this, only to be disappointed. Some seek the same promises in drugs and substances. Kornfield warned:

Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given with our hearts. In a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected to our heart.”

This has been, as far as I can make out, what has been missing in religious life for many people, and the scandals that have rocked the church as well as other movements, have driven people away from an aspect of life that seems to me to be integral, leaving many confused and disorientated, seeking distraction and ways to deaden the anxiety or rage that rises in their hearts. The complaint of many medical experts is that many illnesses and mental disorders come from an unbalanced lifestyle, misuse of food and alcohol, lack of purpose, too little exercise, and the influence of advertising on our consumerism. Hardly a good replacement for something as wholesome as Jack Kornfield described.


[ii] Quoted in

[iii] Huxley, Aldous (1946). The Perennial Philosophy (1st. ed.). London: Chatto and Windus. p. Dust Jacket.