My Assumptive World or “Religion”

          Welcome!  This stren, #88, and the next one will encourage you to become more acquainted with your values.  Our first values emerge from the collection of our beliefs; they first spring from faith in authority rather than knowledge, from acceptance of instinct and tradition rather than scientific study.  Awareness of our history shows us that science gradually leads to changes in our beliefs, because new knowledge can make established assumptions untenable.  As we increase our knowledge of universal cause-and-effect relationships, we realize that many of the extraordinary leaps of faith our ancestors made missed their mark.  However, it takes considerable time for established religion to adapt to new knowledge because instinct and tradition resist chance.  Established religions initially declare new knowledge that contradicts its authority “heresy”.  In time, it acknowledges the possibility of a small degree of validity and years later the new truth is heralded as the original product of its own creativity.      
   
          We are powerfully influenced by the values we accept on faith.  Examining your value system can help you become your own person and dramatically strengthen your self-mastery to direct your destiny.  To encourage you to reflect on your own beliefs about the world and how you acquired your values, I will reveal the process by which I acquired most of my “religious” views or assumptions.  I want to inspire you to understand the process that shaped your values. The process of “knowing yourself” will strengthen your religious beliefs, not weaken them.  This stren is not intended to impose my personal values on you.  I believe neither you nor anyone capable of vision is wise to blindly accept another’s views.  I share my story to encourage you to examine your story.  I would also like you to understand my passion to promote mental freedom and world peace.  The next stren will focus on the influence of science on our religion and how they are compatible.  

          This stren could just as well be called “My assumptive world.”  Each of us acts in a manner that is based on the assumptions we make about our self and the world we live in.  Science doesn’t provide us sufficient facts to answer our most important questions: Do we have a purpose, and if so, what is it?  What is ethical and moral?  What is beauty?  What is the perfect life?  Is there life after death? 

          For our first dozen years, until about the onset of puberty, our brain cells have the special ability to faithfully record what they receive. Learning the “shoulds” that dictators demand of us is as predictable as learning our native language.  The values to which we are exposed are not our own.  They belong to those who shape us like putty in their hands – namely nature and our nurturers, fate and circumstance.  The values of those in authority are passively recorded in our brain and remain there unless and until we actively modify them.  Whether our role models are well-meaning or just mean, loving or self-serving, we remain servants to their whims unless and until we actively modify them.  The immature mind lacks the strength to do otherwise.  Perhaps this is why Socrates told us, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and sages through the ages advise self-enlightenment: “Know thyself!” 

          We act primarily according to the faith-based assumptions we make about what we know and what is beyond our knowledge.  Imagine that all of our scientific knowledge is bounded by a fence.  Our ancestors were intelligent, but their limited knowledge could be contained within a very small fence.  What is unknown is outside the fence and must be assumed on faith.  Many of the answers to our most important questions must be answered based on our assumptions, beliefs, and the values we assign to what is beyond the fence – what I call “our religion.”  Religion is the sum total of our collected beliefs or assumptions.  With the recent introduction of the scientific method, we are rapidly expanding the knowledge inside our fence and applying it to our daily life’s activities.  History reveals a progression of modifying the giant leaps of faith that missed their mark with smaller jumps that have greater universal acceptance.     

          This is my story.  Use it only to identify your own values, certainly not to mimic mine.  The word humanist best describes what I accept as my truth.  I am concerned more with human beings, their interests and achievements, than with abstract beings or issues of theology.  My passion is to improve our human condition and alleviate suffering.  I believe we are a work-in-progress of a powerful creative force which is transforming ourselves and the earth from a savage, uncivilized state to one that emphasizes the humane qualities of love, kindness, mercy, and compassion. 

          My views were influenced by a mildly Jewish upbringing, although many of my early years were spent with a young, non-Jewish “nursemaid” who looked after me while my parents worked long hours.  I am mostly a gastronomic Jew.  I love matzah ball soup and gefilte fish.  I also love going to Disney World, visiting the various pavilions and trying the different ethnic foods.  This is one basis of my conviction of the importance of diversity.  My understanding of Judaism as it was taught to me is as follows.   
The central ethical command is embodied in one word, “mitzvah.”  It means, do good deeds!  This moral obligation is simple and easy to follow.  There is no missionary movement to convert others to Judaism, as in Christianity or Islam.  Within my Jewish upbringing I have never heard that “chosen” implied Jews claim to be a master race.  I was taught “the chosen people” means Jews were given extra responsibility to introduce the idea that there is one God who rules all, an idea which was contradictory to the practice of idol worship and multiple gods.  Our ancestors had some interesting beliefs as a result of their leap to faith. and some unusual rituals to please their gods  “Chosen” also means the Jews are to think with wisdom and share such with others.  One of the most admirable mitzvahs is to study with the sages how to best conduct our life.  The sages were thought-leaders, usually Rabbis, which means “teachers,” who engaged in dialog to interpret ethical issues. I was taught with an emphasis on this life; there is no description of an afterlife, but neither is there a refutation.  Life after death wasn’t considered an important theme, perhaps because it is beyond our current knowledge.  There is no equivalent of the elaborate descriptions of heaven and hell found in Christianity. 

          When I was taken to shul (Jewish temple) I could not understand the services, which were mostly conducted in Hebrew so they weren’t very meaningful.  I am aware of Jewish fundamentalists who believe they have the right answers, just as fundamentalists in all religions advocate the superiority and exclusivity of their own religion.  The fundamentalist perspective is, “My way, the only way.”  This assumption, based on authority more than common sense, has always turned me off; more so now that I’m a bit more knowledgeable and more mature.  I believe ascribing superiority of one group over another is the expression of bigotry, prejudice, and destructive confrontation.  I hold that no religion is superior and none are inferior, but that beliefs that support doing harm to others require restraint. 

          I was the first in my family to finish high school, and I was uncertain about what I might do upon completing it.  My life took a dramatic turn when my high school counselor and football coach, Otts Helm, called me into his office and insisted that I go to college.  My family did not encourage me but they offered no resistance and were supportive of my decision.  Johns Hopkins truly provided me a liberalizing education.  I am grateful for the opportunity many professors provided by sharing their knowledge and wisdom.  Philosophy and religion were favorite subjects as they addressed many of the questions I asked myself.  Medical school was certainly an experience in getting to know my physical self, an invaluable beginning to study the workings of the mind.  My most influential mentor was the late Jerome Frank, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and world authority on the psychological issue of war and peace.  However, my greatest teachers were the thousands of individuals who shared their journey to well-being during my professional practice. 

          In my college days, I was taught that “religion is the moral teaching of humankind.”  My dictionary definition is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe ... often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”1   Some people identify a specific “organized” formal religion that they ascribe to and say they practice;  yet, they often conduct their lives so at odds with the principles of their identified religion that I question if they got the name correct.  Others who profess no formal religion seem to subscribe quite faithfully to the moral teachings of one or more identified religions.  Even avowed atheists regularly act on the faith they place in their assumptions.  From my point of view, everyone is “religious” because we are always acting on the basis of our particular faith, our unique set of collective assumptions.  They just might not have a name for their unique personalized set of beliefs.  “My religion” or “John’s religion” may be more accurate than the broad labels we use, such as Christian, Moslem, Jew, Nazi, atheist, etc.  Since our religious beliefs are so influential, wisdom suggests we familiarize ourselves with the assumptions that influence the conduct of our life.     

          We used to believe ourselves to be a step below the angels.  That may be true, but I confess I don’t even know if there are angels, and if so, whether we are very close or eons away.   I believe I am the “immediate” product of millions of years of evolution, and a step above the monkeys … a giant step.  I humbly accept that my human capacity for mental freedom, while quite sufficient to serve me well in my lifetime, may be puny in the grand scheme of things.  I am curious to know how I came to be.  As so many others do, I assume there is a first cause or “uncaused cause” but I don’t believe I have the capacity to clearly identify who or what that power is and what my place is in the overall scheme.  However, the challenge of discovery is inspiring and I am excited by the opportunity for self-enlightenment.  I believe I have sufficient resources to make my life’s experience beautiful, fulfilling, and productive.  I have faith in my capacity to make a difference for me, and that in so doing, I’ll have an impact on others and the world of which I am a part.  I hold the directing of my energy to these ends to be a worthy endeavor.      

          I would like to know if there is a hereafter and what that might be.  Explanations are commonly found in most formal religions, and many people accept a faith-based explanation that powerfully influences their actions.  I assume there are universal values and wisdoms, that our great religions have identified most of them, and they have far more similarities than differences.  I believe the pervasive animosity associated with formal religions is created by our two-category early way of thinking more so than the basic values of our formal religions.  Our prevalent manner of thinking leads us to focus on our differences while we ignore the similarities that relate us.  This is why I believe Einstein’s insight is correct – if we choose to survive, we require a newer manner of thinking (ANWOT) based more on common sense than authority.    

          My assumptive world view is the basis of what I consider my religion and the values that lead to action.  They form a framework that makes it easier to address the value issues of daily living.  I cannot say I always adhere to them but I do what I reasonably can.  I hope my story will help you relate to your story. 

Here is what makes sense to me:

Striving to do worthy deeds is the simplest statement of my religion. Good deeds are doing what benefits someone  and/or makes the world a better place to live.  The world consists of its total amount of positives and negatives; any worthy deed adds to the total good.
 
☻ Attaining the good life requires knowing one’s self.  The 5 ingredients are abundantly available: faith (I think I can!), work, patience, direction, and risk-taking.      

☻ The universal rules of a moral life are discoverable through common sense and verifiable by diverse tribes.  Examples include “Treat others as I would have them treat me,” and “Love myself so I have plenty for my neighbors.”  Our animal brain advocates “My way, the only way” and “Eat or be eaten,” concepts which are unlikely to receive universal agreement. 

☻ I strive to have tolerance for all people even if I don’t agree with their assumptions.  Tolerance begins with respect for myself. 

☻ I am responsible for my actions and experience. I have been given the gift of opportunity to become my own person, to free my will from the demands of “others,” and I don’t want to waste it.  Though initially dependent on fate and circumstance, I believe that as I develop physical and mental maturity I can selectively free myself from those commands of my genes and nurturers that no longer work.  Mental freedom is one of my most important strivings.  I believe we can each choose the amount of energy we invest in self-mastery, and when we do, the payoff is invaluable.       

☻ I continuously strive for self-enlightenment by strengthening newer ways of thinking (ANWOT) to cope with the issues of modernity.  I have come to believe that the prescriptive, dichotomous, two-category manner of thinking inherent in the native language we first acquire is the prime source of prejudice, hatred, and wars.  I believe we each can acquire a wiser manner of thinking to consistently promote our well-being and the well-being of those we love.

☻ Love is an important source of energy; perhaps our most important. 2   Resentment and hate restrain love.  Forgiveness is our most difficult but potent form of love.  It is our antidote to resentment and hate.

☻ Creating and sharing love begins with loving one’s self:  Love, like hate, is a product of our manner of thinking, of our higher mental skills.  I do well when I assign a high priority to the use of my mental energy for the manufacture of love.

☻ I strive to become my own best friend because I will be with my self far more than anyone else.  I want to enjoy and make meaningful the time I have to converse with myself.

☻ Maintaining an attitude of gratitude is wisdom of the highest priority.  I look at the doughnut more than the hole and focus on the half-full more than the half-empty glass.  Gratitude can be expressed in so many ways. 

☻ The Serenity prayer provides powerful wisdom:  I wisely create the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I regard “prayer” as a wish to motivate me to do all I reasonably can to make it happen.  I am my own genie!

☻I value mistakes as a source of learning:  Wisdom comes from mistakes; accept and learn from them.  Nature endows us with tolerance for mistakes.  Consider our ready acceptance of the many mistakes required to learn to walk.  It takes years of “training” for us to learn to abhor mistakes, and even more years to rediscover that mistakes are an important means by which we learn.  I’m fond of the expression, “I waste at least half my time; I’m just not sure which half.” 

☻ Maintain high expectancy but limited expectations.  My lower expectations conform to the reality that my reasonable best efforts often result in an outcome less than my goal.  I accept that I have limited control over luck and circumstance, and the world often doesn’t respect “fairness.”  I believe in working hard to do my reasonable best, and I judge my worth more by my input than the outcome.3   As I am always in charge of doing my reasonable best, I regularly endorse myself.

☻ I am far from perfect, especially in my own pursuit of self-mastery.  I invest more time and energy than most because I maintain a special enthusiasm for self-enlightenment, in the art of living.  I accept my limitations, and expect I will continue to make unwise decisions due to my lack of perfection. 

          There are many more assumptions that contribute to how I think and feel and act.  While grossly incomplete, these assumptions provide the framework that permits me to fill in the spaces as the need arises to address my personal decision-making.  I pursue truth and wisdom because I believe they have inherent value for creating a fulfilling life.  Are you aware of the “framework” that constitutes your religion?  In the next stren, I will share how science influences my value system and encourage you to examine the relationship of science to your religion.

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1  Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, Random House, 1994
2  “Life is short, and we have not much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.  Oh, be swift to love!”  Sign: The Gathering Place, Hartford, CT.
3  Carl Rogers, a therapist, put it well when he suggested our view of self-worth may be likened to a fraction in which the numerator is the outcome and the denominator is our expectation.  By making unrealistic expectations we judge ourselves to be and feel less than whole.