1 Belief systems

Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of "reality". Every human being has a belief system that they utilize in this way, and it is through this organised system that we individually "make sense" of the world around us. All belief systems offer an explanation of something. They are created to describe the world in some way, providing answers to such questions as, "where did we all come from?", "why are we here?" or "what happens when we die?", Therefore belief systems are an integral part of enculturation. They are stories passed on from person to person to help people create, understand and maintain their ecological niche. From birth, formulating a belief system is essential to social survival and so is an important element in the ecology of social space. Belief systems govern our lives. They determine how we do things and how we look at something; how we perceive it, how we judge it; and how we frame our expectations about situations, experiences and life in general. Sometimes they may be supportive, other times they may be supportive only for a period of time, and other times they are not supportive from the beginning.

Stories consist of collections of ideas or mental impressions borrowed from the immediate culture, which includes parents, siblings, teachers, friends and public figures. In social ecology a story may be defined as a meme, a concept proposed by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Memes are analogous to genes, but rather than being based on the hereditary chemical structures of DNA in cells, a meme is an idea which propagates from mind to mind. To quote Dawkins himself:

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of people all over the world”.

We are born meme-free and remain so until exposed to the people with whom we share the world. Memes can be handed down from generation to generation through the practice of storytelling, ritual or even through the veneration of such things as objects and concepts. They can manifest as symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or various other observable manners of social conveyance. This is true for both religious and scientific memes.

2 Faith and spirituality

Faith is the notion of accepting a belief system without adequate proof. It is the bridge between uncertainty and action. The various popular faith memes are religions and are very powerful in person to person bonding within a community.

Stephen Law, a British philosopher says belief systems "draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves ... if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again." This is exemplified by the belief systems of religion, which have difficulty in changing dogma when pressured. Belief systems which are based around faith change painfully and slowly. Take for example, Christianity's recent struggles to keep up with the rapidly changing times. Nevertheless, change they do, and shifts in the Christian belief system have been made with regards to the equality of women, homosexuality, and other social changes in our modern cultures.

The human sense of spirituality is the reaction on coming face-to-face with something far greater and immeasurably more vast than yourself, glimpsing the essence of reality and being overawed by it. In the Buddhist tradition, it is often referred to as satori; Christian charismatics call it the sense of God’s presence or the Holy Spirit moving in one’s heart; while a devotee of a mystical sect might refer to it as union with the Absolute. Whatever one chooses to call it, though, it is a powerful and profoundly moving experience, one which often has long-lasting effects on a person’s view of the world.

The spiritual experience is not necessarily associated with religion. “Spirituality” focuses on a range of things on which a person builds his or her faith (e.g, God, church, nature, etc) and the things he or she does to try to make a connection with those things (prayer, sacraments, hiking). In other words, spirituality reinforces a person’s faith as it seeks meaning, purpose, and significance. In these terms, faith is an internal feeling, a sense that there is “something more.” By contrast, spirituality represents the external effort to find out what that “something more” might be.

Imagine how spirituality might have emerged in the first human communities, In particular, take the response to the night sky as these people would have seen it. In the present era, city dwellers can see a few dozen stars at night; those who live in suburban areas, probably a few hundred. These early human communities would have seen thousands of stars, each one as sharp and brilliant as diamonds spilled across the firmament. On clear nights, the Milky Way would have been seen as a great pale misty arch spanning the sky. The awesome majesty of the night sky would have been the most obvious reminder that the star gazers were largely at the mercy of an indifferent and often hostile universe, fearful of forces beyond their control. What happened next is not difficult to understand. They created, a system to give them the feeling of control over the world they craved. it was a belief system in which nature was ruled over by spirits and deities that could be assuaged, bribed, or propitiated. As this theology evolved over time, it added a new proposition from which people could derive further comfort and feelings of control: the gods care about us, they are on our side, and regardless of appearances, they will ensure that things turn out right for us in the end.

3 Spirituality of theism

The ancient Greeks put heroes and gods in the night sky, as if its only purpose was to act as a larger mirror of our daily lives. Christianity went even farther, and for centuries clerics declared the Earth to be the unmoving centre of the universe, the axis of creation around which everything else revolved. Those who spoke out against this notion were threatened with, and sometimes actually suffered, imprisonment, torture and execution. In fact, almost every religion human beings have ever invented has had a core belief that humanity was in some way central to the universe. This outlook makes the cosmos more like scenery, an arbitrarily contrived puzzle made just to keep us busy. Faith leads a person to expect it and take it for granted.

The spirituality of theism, is very human-centered. It is part of a belief system that everything that exists does so only for our benefit, that the universe is ultimately subservient to us. It propagates the belief that the universe, comprising a hundred billion galaxies each made up of a hundred billion stars, was created for the sake of one star. This one star in turn was created only so that it could warm a planet a millionth of its size, and that that entire planet and its gloriously complex four-and-a-half-billion year history of life was created only for the sake of the singular primate, Homo sapiens, who currently bestrides its surface. While astronomers look out into space and see the titanic deaths of stars and the collisions of entire galaxies, Christian theism claims that the life of a single man and the formation of a tiny fiefdom of his followers two thousand years ago was the most important thing that ever happened in the history of the cosmos.

This, then, is the spirituality of theism. A god meme conveys a story that the world was made especially for us to live in and its maker watches over us from his heaven; he cares about us and will save us in the end, so long as we worship him and remain appropriately respectful of his power. No matter how bad things may seem, he has a plan, and it is our lot to have faith in him and trust that all will work out for the best. We do not know how this god meme arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation'. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself ? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value for a meme in a meme pool?. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The `everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of god is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the human ecological niche.

To take a particular example from Christianity, an aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. Many children and even some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torments after death if they do not obey the priestly rules. This is a peculiarly nasty technique of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the middle ages and even today. But it is highly effective. The idea of hell fire is, quite simply, self perpetuating because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other's survival in the meme pool. It is also a suitable story to be presented in paintings and has been the subject of church art over and over again.

Adoption of a religious meme complex is called 'having faith'. It means trusting a story in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The Christian story of 'Doubting Thomas' is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence of Christ's wounds. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith in the supernatural was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The faith meme secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

Religious faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, faith can decree that he should die -- on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader's sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast.

God memes have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves by removing opposing memes. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious faith. For example, the meme of political economy that says we must stay on course for ever-increasing prosperity is at odds with the fact that the world has already exceeded the capacity of Earth to supply the ecosystem services.

4 Scientific belief systems

Most people recognize a longing, a desire to experience deep meaning in life, which they know secularism cannot fulfil. This has been summarised in the reference of Paul Sartre to the 'God-shaped hole' in a humanist society. Pascale concluded that the God-shaped hole in the human heart is in fact an infinite and terrifying abyss, which:

" I try to cover over with all sorts of false facades. But then a crack appears in the facade, and I see through it the well of eternal nothingness plunging down forever, and I hurl myself back in total horror. Only that which is infinite and completely transcendent, Pascal said, could fill such an abyss".

In a godless world where do we look to fill Pascale's abyss?

An atheist's belief system differs from a religious one because it minimizes the need for faith by uncovering facts, has a greater explanatory power about how the world works, and is open to rapid revision when new facts established by experiment become available. These two types of belief systems are entirely incompatible. Someone holding both religious and scientific beliefs cannot be thinking scientifically, as it is inconsistent. However, someone thinking religiously may hold scientific beliefs without conflict.

An example of a scientific meme is the theory of evolution. The molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod in 1971 stated that:

"Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact"

E. O. Wilson began his book on human nature in 1978 by stating,

"If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species".

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, concluded that:
If you wish to ask the question of the ages-why do humans exist?-a major part of the answer . . . must be: because Pikaia survived the Burgess decimation ... I do not think that any 'higher' answer can be given.

The presence of a tiny creature as complex as Pikaia some 530 million years ago, which anatomically has the characteristics of the ancestor of vertebrate animals from which we are descended, reinforces the view that the diversification of life must have extended deep in time. Furthermore, our Pikaia ancestor happened by chance to survive catastrophic planetary events that wiped out other representatives of the Burgess shale invertebrate fossil assembly.

Having come through several periods of extinction by chance to emerge as thinking beings, now our wonder is that we are stardust, part of the chemical cosmos that is also our home. We are, in a sense, the universe examining itself. From our tiny and remote corner of the cosmos, we have gazed across the light-years, unravelled the natural laws that hold on the very largest of scales, and traced our own origins all the way back to when the universe was created with an improbable group of parameters that allowed a universe to form that was just right for our kind of life to evolve. How can such profound understanding not instil in us a sense of awe? All atheism denies is that we need to fall back on supernatural forces to explain what we do not yet know. Facing up to the need to plug the hole humanism http://david-pollock.org.uk/humanism/humanism-beliefs-and-values/

In his book, 'Unweaving the Rainbow', Richard Dawkins argues against the powerful 18th century Romantic idea that scientific explanation disenchants the world. He says the wonders revealed by science are just as wonderful and as poetic as anything in the pre-scientific world-view of nature.

Therefore we have to accept the necessity of wonder itself as the essence of 'God space' . Julian Spalding writing on the 'Art of Wonder' helps us reconsider our relationship with the arts and makes us aware that understanding through seeing is the true gift of human spirituality. He shows us how mankind's early vision of the sun and moon, the seasons and death is reflected in art and draws striking parallels between apparently disparate cultures, eras and peoples. The wonders of the world have changed little, what has changed through history is our way of understanding, approaching and seeing them and our role in nurturing this spiritual process of wonderment This knowledge, paradoxically, is both an uplifting wonder and a profoundly humbling experience, revealing our utter insignificance and simultaneously elevating our lives beyond measure. In our telescopes, we see light that was emitted long before the Earth ever existed. While it travelled across space, our solar system formed from a disk of dust and gas, our sun ignited and began to shine, our planet coalesced and began to travel in its orbit, and life arose and diversified over billions of years until it became able to know itself and its place in the universe.

This is a great wonder and an appropriate meditative focus for contemplating our place in the universe is the photograph taken in 1990 by a Voyager spacecraft from the edge of interstellar space, over three billion miles from Earth. As it left the solar system, never to return, it pointed its camera backwards and took one last picture of the planet from which it came. In the picture, the Earth is a single lonely twinkle, against a background of all-enveloping darkness. A golden sunbeam illuminates our planet, as if it were a single dust speck floating by itself in a huge drafty hall. There we are; an infinitesimal part of an enormous cosmos, utterly insignificant to the running of the whole.

Knowing that the cosmos was not made just for us opens up whole new vistas of wonder and mystery – it makes it all the more surprising and amazing that we are here regardless. Our own existence, and our consciousness of that existence, is a thing so incredible and strange that it alone qualifies as the greatest wonder in our experience.
The longer one looks at this photograph of Earth in space, where we are but one pixel in the computer image, the more profound is the realization that the tiny, far-off glimmer is our home. Our lives, as well as the lives of everyone we know or have ever heard about, took place there. All of history – all the madness and the chaos, all the struggle and the bloodshed, all the petty everyday difficulties and all the vast conflicts, all the crushing losses and marvellous triumphs of the human species – took place on that pale dot, affecting nothing beyond it, while all around us the cosmos continues on its vast revolutions, unperturbed.

5 Filling the God space

Looking down into Pascal's abyss the only infinite and transcendent filling of the empty God space is our wonderment at the winding path of aeons of evolution from which humanity eventually appeared. How can this be expressed as a set of meditative symbols? Here we have only a recourse to an historic record of human visual imagery which starts with precise scratchings on mollusc shells about half a million years ago and developed to produce the palaeolithic cave paintings and carvings of 35,000 years ago. Starting with the sense of wonder generated by the impact of Voyager's photograph we can explore the role of art, poetry and prose in providing meditatve images for a materialistic age which are infinite and completely transcendent. This was actually the aim of the Russian abstract painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky. In 1910 he published 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art', which was penned in the period between the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the consumer society. He begins by considering art as a spiritual antidote to the values of materialism and introduces the notion of "stimmung," an almost untranslatable concept best explained as the essential spirit of nature. It echoed Tolstoy's notion of 'emotional infectiousness' as the true measure of art for a godless age. Tolstoy believed that art is a human activity whereby the artist consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands over his emotions to others the feelings he has lived through. Other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

Kandinsky considered the impact of art on the spectator as follows:

[In great art] "the spectator does feel a corresponding thrill in himself. Such harmony or even contrast of emotion cannot be superficial or worthless; indeed the Stimmung of a picture can deepen and purify that of the spectator. Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness; they "key it up," so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument."

Half a century later Mark Rothko reported that people cried when viewing his abstract colour field paintings. This emotional impact of colour perception, harmony and discord, is what interested Rothko, and he and other Abstract Expressionists began to play with colour as a means of expanding and expressing our inner life. Rothko believed, “The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees.” This dictum can apply to both artist and viewer where the essential ingredients for meditation are the aesthetics of the object, its symbolism and mental accessibility.