Perspectives on Changing Minds on Science and Religion in the U.S.


by Luis

In our meeting last week, Yann described the paradox observed in the US wherein many political conservatives combine good knowledge of science with completely non-scientific opinions on certain ‘sensitive’ topics. I wanted to know more so via Google I found this sociological study, published precisely on the day of our meeting, on the “perspectives on science and religion in the U.S.”

This article seems to have drawn quite a lot of attention from the media (example here), mainly because of the identification of that paradoxical group, which the authors call “post-secularists”.

I read the article in full and realized that its results are actually quite richer, and can provide insights about how to promote a more scientific mindset in the U.S. I am sending you my observations with you in case you want to share them in your blog.

First of all, the authors identify three groups in the U.S. population based on their attitudes towards science and towards religion. They have called them “traditional”, “moderns” and “post-secularists”. “Post-secularists” are “religious and scientifically literate”. These guys score relatively well in non-controversial scientific questions (e.g. the temperature of the center of the Earth or how to design experiments) but overwhelmingly reject the notion of Big Bang (94% against) or human evolution (97% against). Half of them define themselves as “conservative Protestants” and 84% of them are “non-Latino whites”. They mostly oppose abortion and are slightly more numerous in the South. The study doesn’t say it but it’s not hard to guess what news channel they watch and what party they vote for. I suspect that any debate with such people regarding their ‘touchy’ topics is doomed to fail: they simply refuse to believe anything that contradicts their “superior source of truth”. If the Bible says the Earth is flat, then the Earth is flat and that’s it. Fortunately for us, “post-secularists” are a minority only represent 21% of the US population today.

The group of “traditionals” (i.e. religious and non-scientific) is double the size, at 43% of the population. These folks mostly deny Big Bang too (79%) but they also ignore the existence of natural radioactivity (53%) or that electrons are smaller than atoms (64%). Almost half of them (46%) actually think that the Sun turns around the Earth! They say they are quite religious but nowhere close to the fanaticism of the post-secularists. “Traditionals” are the most racially diverse group: only half of them are non-Latino whites. More than 70% of African-Americans and Latinos are classified here. “Traditionals” rank substantially lower in income and years of education than “moderns” or “post-secularists”, and 60% of them are women. All this actually gives me hope because I tend to think that, with better education and access to science, many “traditionals” could eventually become “moderns” (i.e. those who prefer science to religion as source of ‘truth’). They don’t refuse science because of religion, they just have no idea of what science is or says. Campaigners for science should therefore target minority girls and poor neighborhoods, and make sure that their message is available in Spanish.

Finally, the “moderns” are those who score well in all scientific questions even if they contradict conservative Christian beliefs. This group represents around 36% of the US population, is overwhelmingly White (88%), and slightly more liberal and more male (58%) than average. This is the only group that strongly supports the unconditional right to abortion. Interestingly, atheists/agnostics tend to be classified here but they remain a minority even within this group: only 36%, versus 19% in the overall population. That means that almost two thirds of the “moderns” seem to be able to reconcile their religious affiliation or spirituality with a scientific view of nature. This is another piece of good news for me (even if I am an atheist) because it means that supporters of science need not destroy religiosity in order to impose their views. I suspect that would be doomed to failure anyway, since spirituality is an innate human intuition and feeling. A balance can seemingly be found where scientific mindset and a certain level of spirituality can coexist.

Summing up, if I had to devise a strategy to give science a more prominent role in U.S. minds, I would do the following: 1) promote education and access to science among the poorer communities, especially African-American and Latino; 2) allow religions and spirituality to slowly move their focus to realms beyond the current borders of science, those areas where the scientific method has not yet made many inroads; 3) not waste time trying to persuade the educated religious fanatics, who actively refuse to even challenge their beliefs, but expose and counter their propaganda whenever necessary.

Link to download the original study:

Click to access Feb15ASRFeature2.pdf

Commentary in The Huffington Post:

On “Building Better Secularists”


In an opinion piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago, the conservative commentator David Brooks wrote of the various challenges arrayed against those of us who choose to live our lives outside of organized religion.

We have a huge mountain to climb, in Mr. Brooks’ estimation.


First, we must construct a personal moral philosophy, all of our own.

Second, we must build communities to support us — and build them from scratch!

Third, we must set aside — and even more difficult, we must keep — a regular time for reflection (in his words, a “Sabbath”).

Finally, we have to find the “moral motivation” to care.

Consistent with the familiar, benevolent, “Who me?” pose of David Brooks, his piece makes every effort to sound fair (“The point is not that secular people should become religious,” etc.). But the impression is leaves is unmistakable…

Why would you do this to yourselves?

Just go with a ready-made religion already!

Choose one, any one, doesn’t matter.

In today’s paper, there were some useful responses from non-believers, questioning some of the premises of his argument.

I have just one response to Mr. Brooks myself. I would suggest that he has left out our biggest advantage over the religious…

The truth.

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

That’s our base camp.

Let’s keep climbing.

Reading for the Fifth Meeting — THE ENLIGHTENMENT


What do you see when you think of the Enlightenment?

For me, the word — capitalized so grandly — brings to mind a pleasing scene of a group of philosophes sitting outside a Parisian café in the sun.

Their wigs, of various hues, shine in the bright light.

They gesticulate wildly, laugh, slap one another on the backs, raise glasses of wine high, all the while dreaming up a new world.

I can see just see them, can’t you? Slender Voltaire with his wry smile…


Open-faced, balding Diderot, who tapped the intellects of his age to produce his great Encyclopédie


I see the incomparable Montesquieu writing The Spirit of the Laws, and so founding the science of anthropology. I see La Mettrie, penning Man a Machine, and so founding the science of neurobiology.

Then my mind leaps to England and Scotland, and I think of John Locke with his clear prose and unforgettable nose…


I think of the “Scottish Enlightenment” — which has been the most long-lasting — and, at the center of it, the great, fat genius of empiricism (and the philosopher who had the most profound impact on me when I read him at Oxford), David Hume. With his admirer and fellow empiricist Adam Smith not far off, tossing a silver coin in the air.

In literature I think of Swift, Pope, Laurence Stern.

And as an American I can’t leave out Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, the Federalist papers. For the Constitution was truly a product of the Enlightenment. It’s not only a work of brilliant political philosophy (influenced heavily by Locke and Montesquieu), but it’s a hands-on blueprint for the longest lasting experiment in representative government the world has ever known.

What images come to mind for you?


Rising above individuals now… to a higher level of abstraction… I see the light of Reason penetrating everything.

The world, opening up to human beings in a new way.

Now it can be examined naturalistically, through science and rationality.

Universal values emerge. Human rights. The abolition of slavery. Women’s rights. The shackles of religion, racism, dogmas of all kinds… finally thrown off!

Free now, to stand on our own feet, to use our own perception, our own minds.


Benjamin Franklin, braving a lightening storm to bring us light.

That all sounds good, no?


But there is another side to the Enlightnment, of course. (Some of you might have gotten there already as I was busy singing its praises?)


Elevating “reason” at the expense of emotion.



Giving birth to false utopias.

Advancing a cult of “objectivity.”

A dangerous ideology to support the Powers that Be.

Sweet-talking its way to Colonial rule over “primitive” peoples.

Destructive of the old, the intuitive, the unique, the weird, the wonderful, the intuitive, the paradoxical, the inexplicable.

Oh, and despite its claims of turning to nature… quite severed from the natural world.

In short, a dream turned nightmare.


I propose that we tackle this question head-on, don’t you?

Where do you stand? Where do you come out? What is the right use of reason? What threat do you think it poses?

Here are this month’s readings, for your consideration:

I thought we should start with two luminaries of the Enlightenment, as they explore the interaction of European values with other cultures, other lands. In this light (so to speak), I encourage you to read:

1. Denis Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’ (click the title for the pdf), and

2. Voltaire’s Candide (you can find a copy, right?)

Both of these works can easily be found online in their French originals.

After that, we are going to turn our attention to the other side of the equation — that is, to critiques of the Enlightenment.

3. Isaiah Berlin, “The Counter-Enlightenment” from Against the Current.

4. Isaiah Berlin again, this time an excerpt from “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West” from The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

5. Excerpts from The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse by Steven D. Smith.

Again, you can click directly on the titles of all except Candide to get the pdfs.

Let me know if you have any trouble.


Remember, make it personal as you read.

And as always, please feel free to write in with other suggestions or questions or comments.

Happy reading and reflecting. See you on the 5th!

Notes on Our Fifth Meeting — THE ENLIGHTENMENT


We gathered at 8 as usual. For my birthday, Florence brought me what she called a “vine,” in a giant pot. Upon reading the card I realized that it was a grapevine — “Grenache blanc.” Thank you, Florence!

So all I need is a vineyard now. Everything has a beginning, right? What did Voltaire say about how we need to “cultivate your garden”?

Anyway, at 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin the Old New Way.

1. Tom’s Presentation: the Counter Counter-Enlightenment

I started us off by stating that I’m just going to come out with it: I agree wholeheartedly with the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I accept the claims of Enlightenment thinkers as to the universality of human aspirations and values — even across disparate cultures and ethnicities. With Voltaire, Diderot, et al., I encourage the questioning of authority and tradition. I’m all for using reason, whenever we can (or rather, to the extent we can, cognitively limited primates that we are), and relying on evidence wherever possible. I really don’t have any problem with these ideals at all.

It’s true that in the centuries that followed the Enlightenment, all the way up to the present, the brute facts of European domination and exploitation of the rest of the world should give us pause. This history alone, understandably, raises the question of whether the Enlightenment has a shadow side.

But I would argue that this troubling history is more the result of the inevitable power dynamic unleashed by the discovery of the scientific method in the West, which provided untold opportunities for mendacity and greed to Europeans. I think it is a mistake to see in it a some deep flaw in Enlightenment values.

I would even go so far as to say it is the corruption of Enlightenment ideals — largely through recidivistic tendencies towards ethnic and racial and religious solidarity — that fostered the terrible litany of horrors we ascribe to European and American power: the slave trade, Colonialism, imperialism, enforced segregation systems like apartheid, and so on and so on. Rationalizations and pseudo-scientific language were (and still are) used to prop up these horrors, but they are misused in this way.

In a word, I concluded, the history of European and American exploitation of people all over the world is ugly, but it is unfair to use this history to condemn Enlightenment values.

Nobody said anything. So I added a little more…

Furthermore, I told our group, someone espousing Enlightenment values does not lose touch with the beauty and mystery of life, as so many Romantics and no-nothings and New Agers insist!

In Isaiah Berlin’s article we read how Vico, Hamann, Herder and others (associated with the Counter-Enlightenment) offered up contasting values, which they argued were overlooked by Voltaire and his ilk: self-expression, individuality, emotional engagement, passion, mystery, ritual, folkways.

“But I don’t think these are mutually exclusive!” I exclaimed. “We can hold fast to the values of reason and evidence and the scientific method, while also celebrating more emotional, subjective, idiosyncratic experiences of all kinds! Moreover, those of us who subscribe to the ideals of the Enlightenment can surely still condemn the abuses of one sub-group over another (White over Black, men over women, Afrikaners over Africans), even while we continue to cherish those unique cultural traditions which do not oppress or violate universal human aspirations and values. Nothing wrong with hanging stockings at Christmas, lighting the Menorah, lighting some sage and going on a Shamanic journey! We can take the best of the Enlightenment and still live weirdly and wildly, can’t we?

Kristen pushed back a little. She suggested that is very easy for those of us in power to embrace the “rightness” of our approach, while picking and choosing which local customs to honor or reject. But what if other cultures and communities, outside the purview of the Enlightenment, have truly incompatible aspirations and values? People in those communities might care less for, say, the rule of law, equally applied, when compared to their concern for the preservation of honor of the family or tribe as a whole. Who are we to insist that the Enlightenment is better as a guide to their lives than their own customs?

I answered Kristen that although I agree this is a challenging question and humility is in order, I always come back to the bedrock conviction that in fact there are universal aspirations for human beings, at least on a basic level. For we are all animals with similar neurobiology, right? Good health, the absence of violence, predictable social relations, the availability of adequate resources to learn — I believe that any customs or traditions that impinge on these basic aspirations for a given group of human beings are problematic. Some members of a given community may resist Enlightenment values, of course — e.g. some men in Afghanistan may want to keep their wives and daughters out of school (and will throw acid on their faces if they insist) — but despite their wishes, the community as a whole would experience a net increase in well-being if these women were treated equally.

Jenna spoke up to say that the usefulness of Enlightenment aspirations is indeed measurable, to some extent. And supported by science. When a U.N. agency develops a program for a country or region, it does so explicitly on the basis of studies showing quantifiable facts, such as frequency of childhood death, average lifespan, infection rate, incidents of violence, levels of education, etc. These are understood to be of interest to all human beings, universally.

Yes, Kristen said, but that’s exactly it, isn’t it? The United Nations is a product of the European Enlightenment. We justify our own preference for these values on the basis of reason, evidence, and practices of quantification inspired by… the Enlightenment. It’s circular!

2. The Question of How to Convert People to the Cause of the Enlightenment

Yann said that he believed that we were all, more or less, in agreement that we prefer the values of the Enlightenment. (Even Kristen’s pushback suggests an urge to objectivity and doubt that reflects the Enlightenment; just as Diderot’s dialogue between a Tahitian chief and a European, one of our readings for the month, raises more questions than it resolves.)

The question, Yann suggested, therefore becomes a practical one: how (and when) can we convince people to think our way? Don cited a study he had read that showed that in hundreds of cases, when presenting people who deny the claims of science with irrefutable data proving the very assertions that they deny, these people are seldom convinced (Don — could you send us the link to this?).

Gerry asked whether the solution may lie in early childhood education. Perhaps, he said, this important responsibility should be taken away from parents and given over to the state? (He echoes Plato here, and Thomas More and Lenin, and many utopian thinkers through history). Away from their parents’ prejudices and failings, children could learn habits of science and reasoned debate, peaceful conflict resolution, and all the rest that would lead to a harmonious world.

Yann rebutted him with a single question: What about the love? What about love, Gerry? I think I saw a tear gleaming in the corner of one of Yann’s eyes. The big sap.

Manon, who runs a preschool, said that in her experience a collective setting can be a loving and nurturing environment, so love is present. On the other hand, she agreed with Yann that a sustained connection with the parents is, in her experience, one of the most important factors in bringing up a happy and harmonious child. So this could pose a problem.

Many others in the group, including me, rejected the notion of separating kids from their parents entirely. After all, who would then have the power to write the curriculum and plan standards? we asked. How do we know that they would get it right? You get all the usual problems with centralized planning: someone corruptible and fallible has to make decisions with imperfect knowledge.

3. A Brief Tour of Our Own Private Utopias

We got into a more personal discussion, at this point, about each of our versions of utopia. I offered that if I could change one thing it might be… the abolition of cars. If we had, say, horses instead, we would take more time with each visit to friends or family; we would be more focused and present with each excursion away from our home. Our ties would become more local, and our sense of community as a whole would be enhanced. Yann offered that, counterintuitively, this change might actually increase the carbon problem to have so many horses passing gas. He mentioned a recent study which showed that 18% of the carbon in the atmosphere is currently generated by cows’ digestive processes.

Manon’s utopia was to eliminate the cell phone. This would enable us to be more attentive to the immediate world around us. And even more, it would preserve us from the onslaught of information that threatens to engulf us every day.

Walden said that his utopia would be to improve himself rather than the outside world. He would engage in a project of continual self-correction. I wondered if he had a mistaken idea that human beings are perfectible? In fact, I offered, we will always have psychological and emotional systems that are directly antagonistic to one another (attachment vs. need for independence, self-interest vs. group identity, etc.).

Dean said that he is much more comfortable with talking about dystopias than utopias.

I added that I would like to live in a world where we have more ability to feel. I am already quite an emotional person (I tear up at least once a day, and my family laughs at me), but this actually seems a tiny fraction, to me, of what I would like to feel. Considering the amount of pain and also beauty that we encounter on a given day, shouldn’t we be weeping and, alternately, experiencing joy, almost continuously? Kristin said that, on the contrary, she feels that she is already too emotional most days; she would rather reign herself in more effectively.

Renée insisted that she detests this kind of group question (“What’s your utopia?”). But in the end she offered one as well: she imagines a society that provides ample support for every family to raise their children (as in some Scandinavian countries that provide year-long maternity leave, universal preschool, etc.).

4. The Information Age… on Overdrive

At some point we got into a discussion about our current era of information overload. Manon mentioned that she feels overwhelmed on a daily basis with the amount of Facebook links, texts, news stories, entertainment options, etc. Many of us agreed.

I said that this is, in my view, a direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Once we began examining the world from a naturalistic viewpoint, breaking questions down into separate pieces, looking to evidence, collecting data, we lost the simple and clear fables that our former delusions and magical thinking provided. It used to be that we thought our leaders, our heroes — writers, artists, warriors, inventors, taboo-breakers and activists of all kinds — were leading us to glimpse eternal Truths, leading us farther and father towards contact with God or Transcendence. But now we see that there are materialist explanations for almost everything we do. Biology dictates many of our actions, including our impulses to love and war. No matter how closely you pour over the text, Hamlet and Lear won’t point you to any answers, only more doubts. Hemingway’s spare manly language is just that: a pose of efficiency covering over the abyss of meaninglessness. Joan of Arc was probably crazy.

The internet has created an “information age on overdrive,” I said. And it is endlessly fascinating, piquing our curiosity (addicting us with its unpredictable dopamine releases), but it is also endlessly horrifying, a vacuum of meaning.

To this extent, I admitted, I do sympathize with counter-Enlightenment thinkers. I took this occasion to read aloud a poem by William Blake:

Mock On Mock On Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on mock on Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on Mock on tis all in vain

You throw the sands against the wind

And the wind blows it back again

And every sand becomes a Gem

Reflected in the beams divine

Blown back they blind the mocking Eye

But still in Israels path they shine

The Atoms of Democritus

And Newtons Particles of light

Are sands upon the Red sea shore

Where Israels tents do shine so bright


We are with Voltaire and Rousseau here, I suggested, throwing our sands against the wind.

While Blake, still enchanted by his illusions of transcendence and ultimate truth (he would say “Vision” and “Imagination”), sees “beams divine” and Israel’s shining tents.

I miss this way of looking at the world!

Yet I would not decline more knowledge either, I added hastily. I would still bite the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil if given a chance. I have no wish to will myself into ignorance. So where are we left? Does the Enlightenment demystify our experience, after all, despite my protestations at the beginning of the meeting?

Gerry agreed that, in his perception, people seem increasingly lost in a sea of meaningless information, especially the younger generation, raised in the age of iTunes and Twitter. They have no bearings. Even popular music is increasingly devoid of heroes or a coherent narrative. He worries about the glut of information and demystification of everything. He personally holds himself to an identity as a healer or helper of humanity (hence his work as a cardiologist), but this is an act of sheer will.

Jenna emphasized the importance of rituals, in the face of modern technology and information overload. She told us how she lights a candle now, for every meal with her children, and she finds that the little flickering flame has an effect of centering and calming them all during meals.

Others in the group said that they did not feel that there is any problem at all. In effect, they find that they can straddle both sides of Blake’s poem; they stand with Voltaire and Rousseau in their determination to throw “sand” at the wind, seek knowledge and test propositions; and they stand too with Blake in his ability to see the sands thrown back as beams divine, gleaming, translucent, spectacular. Don said that he has no problem waking every morning and reminding himself of whom he loves and how he wants to show up for them, while not needing any absolute meaning beyond this.

5. The Question of ISIS 

At this point we got into a brief discussion about whether the followers of ISIS, or the Islamic State, are aligned with William Blake and Hamman and Herder and other critics of the Enlightenment, i.e. whether they are followers of the Romantic, counter-Enlightenment tradition. Certainly the Muslim teenagers who fly to the Mideast from France and England and the U.S. to join the jihad are choosing a form of ignorance (denying the secular culture of science and the Enlightenment in favor of the certainties of radical Islam). They are, arguably as a direct consequence of this choice, filled with an ecstatic sense of purpose (well, at least until they arrive on the scene in Syria and face the gritty reality).

Dean interjected to caution us from falling into the trap of becoming obsessed with this rag-tag group, who pose no serous threat to our lives. The way that ISIS cropped up in our discussion wearied him.

Fair enough, I said. Though I pointed out that he couldn’t accuse us of invoking them in the usual, fearful way, so as to justify a war-footing or something like that. After all, we were actually admiring them for their enthusiasm! (And for nothing else, let it be said.) At this Dean laughed and agreed, but he wanted to make sure we weren’t overstating their threat or their appeal, for that matter.

6. Something Really Hard to Tackle 

As we ended, I suggested that in the last two meetings (on the Scientific Method and the Enlightenment) it struck me that we had positioned ourselves on the side of… knowing better than others.

We even talked, both months, about the best techniques for converting others to our position!

Nothing wrong with this — part of what we are doing is figuring out what we stand for (and ISIS is wrong, dammit). But still, it stood out to me that we were defining our outlook on the world in a rather confident way so far.

Perhaps, I asked, we should choose a topic for April about which we fully acknowledge our lack of any expertise?

With that in mind I proposed that next month I would like to reflect on the theme of “love.”


The very word, outside of familiar contexts like weddings, Valentine’s day, birthday cards, or bedtime with our kids, makes us squirm uneasily. Despite how pervasive the world is in our culture, we are surprisingly unclear on what love really means to us, and how much we want to prioritize it in our lives. What are the various manifestations of love available to us? How important are they?

So — I will find some readings and perhaps artwork for us to mull over in advance of the meeting. Any suggestions are more than welcome.

Another great discussion. Lots to think about and mediate over.

See you in April!

Reading for Our Sixth Meeting — LOVE

FRIDAY, MARCH 13, 2015

Well, for our next meeting we are going to take a very different tack. Instead of traveling farther along the chronology we have been following so far (the course of non-supernatural thought through the centuries), this month we will be looking at a force that dominates everybody’s lives, in all ages: love. One of the core principles in the major religious traditions is the aspiration towards love (for “God,” for one’s in-group, for nature, for the poor). It is certainly central to all of our lives, even for those of us who stand outside of any religious tradition. Yet in everyday life, talking of love often makes us… uneasy. Sure we can laugh about how much we adore our children. There are weddings, anniversaries, funerals, when it is acceptable to talk openly of love. You might end a phone conversation with a quick “I love you.” But in most conversations — those not directed to our parents, our children, or to our cats or dogs — we tend to shy away from it. Our discussions of character and moral dilemmas and politics are oddly emptied out of references to love. How about re-claiming this word for non-supernatualists like ourselves? Can’t we meet and talk of love without feeling squeamish? Can’t we talk about what loves means to us, how we recognize it? How we try to love more deeply, more truly, better? Can’t we too share stories of our varied experiences of love, and how these experiences have changed or transformed or been redirected over time? This meeting is our chance to start. I will be posting readings over the next month. As I do I will put them up for you in pdf form here. All suggestions welcome! Tom — To start us off, I give you the final of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

The little Love-god lying once asleep Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand, Whilst many nymphs that vow’d chaste life to keep Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand The fairest votary took up that fire Which many legions of true hearts had warm’d; And so the general of hot desire Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarm’d. This brand she quenched in a cool well by, Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual, Growing a bath and healthful remedy For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall, Came there for cure, and this by that I prove, Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

“Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.” Certainly the neurochemical cocktail called “romantic love” is not necessarily the only — or even the most life-changing — form of love that we experience. But I think this sonnet is a good place to start because its memorable last line captures, I think, the triumphant and terrifying power of love over lived experience. Contrary to all known laws of thermodynamics, love’s fire heats water… water cools not love. In the case of love, a purely subjective state overwhelms the objective world. Everything is inverted. Everything is loop de looped. How lucky we are that this is true! * A poem by William Blake:

Never seek to tell thy love Never seek to tell thy love Love that never told can be; For the gentle wind does move Silently, invisibly. I told my love, I told my love, I told her all my heart, Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears– Ah, she doth depart. Soon as she was gone from me A traveller came by Silently, invisibly– O, was no deny.

* A short story from George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead.” At first it may seem a strange selection for our discussion on love, but I think you will find that it raises a lot of questions about the nature of love, and different kinds of love, and what they matter to us. I found it quite powerful. I hope you do too. It was published in the New Yorker (and it’s now part of his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December. Here’s the link: * A fragment of a poem by Saphho:

Asleep against the breasts of a friend.

* Another short story, this time by James Lasdun. It was in this March’s Paris Review. I thought it was wonderful, and it raises many questions about different kinds of love, and the role of love in our lives. It’s called Feathered Glory. (Click on the title for the pdf!)

* One more — a short story by Tove Jansson (actually it is a chapter in her novel, Fair Play, but it reads as a distinct story). Tove Jansson is famous for the Moomin books, which she wrote for children, but she wrote adult novels too. This brief and gentle chapter is a good counterpoint, I think, to our usual assumptions about love. Here’s the pdf: Fireworks.

Five Kinds of Love


Here goes.

To get us started.

Don’t laugh!


First, as I am sure you will agree, when taking on such a difficult subject we will need to get our terms straight…

What is “love,” anyway?


I want to draw our group’s attention to five different, widely-shared human experiences – all confusingly grouped together under the one word “love.”

(See what you think I have left out.)

1. First there is, of course, romantic love.

Let’s call this Eros.

This is the love that we talk about when we talk of “falling in love” with someone.

Think Danté and Beatrice, Tristan und Isolde, Romeo and Juliet… Scott and Zelda… I don’t know… The Captain and Maria?… Danny and Sandy?

Popular culture is rife with examples… You know this one: the unquenchable fire, etc. etc.

It is often, though not always, short-lived.

2. Second, there is the love of parents for their children.

This kind of Parental Love often has an intensity comparable to that of “Eros,” but with a difference…

Where Eros is blinding, dizzying, intoxicating, Parental Love is steady, protective, adoring, demanding.

It is not thought to be as subject to the vicissitudes of time. (On the contrary, the challenge for parents, they are often told, is the letting go!)

3. Third, there is the love we can potentially feel for all of our fellow human beings, even for strangers. In the Christian tradition this is referred to as “agape ” or “caritas.”

In the Buddhist tradition it is sometimes rendered lovingkindness.

Let’s call this Compassion.

4. Then, fourth, there is the love between monogamous married people, longtime partners, grown children and their parents, and often, close friends.

This is sometimes called “companianate love,” but for our purposes I prefer to call it, simply, Commitment.

5. And finally, there is the love we have for the non-human world around us: other animals, as well as flowers, plants, trees, rocks, waves, seas, all living things and even particular places (the concept of a “God,” as the symbol or embodiment of these things, comes in here too).

We often discover this form of love through our work or other daily practices, and our consequent attention to details as we acquire knowledge and skills.

This is a kind of love too, and I think it should be included in our discussion. I propose that we call this love Reverence.

These five types of love, then – Eros, Family, Compassion, Commitment and Reverence – will be what I am talking about in the thoughts that follow.

They often overlap. They sometimes stand apart.

They even stand sometimes in opposition!

But these five types of love constitute, I believe, the core of our deepest experiences in life.

Okay. With those terms cleared up, I will talk a little bit about each in turn…



So. At least five forms of love. (Did you want to add one or more? Please do in the comments!)

1. Eros →

2. Parental Love →

3. Compassion →

4. Commitment →


5. Reverence →

But there’s only one love that leaps to mind when we think of… well, when we think of lovers.

The one that all but consumes us when we are young.

Golly Miss Molly Great Balls of Fire!

Come on baby light my fire!

Just a hunk – a hunk – a burning love!

This is the One that Lies in Wait. This is the one that… if you try to shake it, dodge it, own it, best it, subdue it, suppress it—it will take you down.

The ecstatic one.

The violent one.

Eternal font of inspiration. Dependable source of humiliation. Elixir of our lives. Bane of our existence.

Uncontrollable. Unpredictable.

Or as we know Shakespeare put it, in the final line of all the sonnets: “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love…”

You guessed it: Eros.


The thing is: one thing we do know, if we know nothing else about the experience, is that Eros often triggers a condition of… weakness and vulnerability.

Weak in the knees.

Laid low.

Gone loopy.

Soft on her.

Soft on him.

Even our common expressions for the state of “being in love” in English reflect this.

And this is not a condition that is warmly welcomed in the larger culture.

So… it makes sense that we feel a little squeamish talking openly about it in any semi-public setting.

(Do you? I do.)

It’s understandable that as we grow older we focus our energies on other aspects of our lives (the challenges of work, the pursuit of pleasure, our daily efforts at earning respect, doing what we consider “good”… to name a few).


But let’s not shy away from it.

What is Eros? How does it arrive in our lives?

Our culture teaches us that same story in many different forms: in fairy tales, of course, but also in poetry of all ages, in plays, in the awkward rhymes on Hallmark cards, in all those sappy Hollywood movies, good and bad, in ads on TV, in almost every pop song ever written.

…a burning love…

When a maaaan needs a womaaaan….

If not for yooouu, babe, I couldn’t find the door, couldn’t even see the floor…

They all make it sound very, very cosmic.

It gets fuzzier, though, when you actually fall in love.

For, as most of us learn over time, the experience of falling in love, as lived, is more complicated than that.

Most people’s early romances have plenty of passion, astonishing coincidences, kisses in the moonlight. But then… in most cases, after a while, they sour, don’t they?

Some end in recriminations or regrets. Some end in astonishment that we ever cared.

Sure, some mellow gradually into friendships. But most deteriorate surprisingly fast: when they go, they go.

(Honestly now, how many of your exes are you friends with now? A couple, at best?)


Looking back, we see that the element of lust was hard to disentangle from the elements of devotion.

More than that, when we reflect back on our early relationships, the feeling of fantasy, of some kind of ego-projection of the relationship you thought you should be having but not the one you actually wanted, haunts many of our memories of how we conducted ourselves.

If you are anything like me then you found that each time, when the fantasy grew unsustainable, when the edges started to brown… all those romantic gestures, those unspoken rules of a proto-commitment (the obligatory tender kiss good-bye, the endless making of plans), quickly became a nuisance.

I found with every break-up, mixed with the sadness, a feeling of relief too.

Remember that?

At last, you said to yourself as he gave you that last hug, got in his car and drove away. Done with that charade!

That old cosmic feeling faded every time.


So what in the end is Eros, then?

Is the whole thing a fraud?

Is it, at best, merely a passing neurochemical trance, triggered by what is actually a trivial assessment of looks or smells or other available resources?

What’s going on?


What Eros is, I humbly submit to you, is, pure and simple, a feeling.

Not much else.

But that’s a lot, actually!


What’s the point of a feeling?

I am convinced that Eros is a transitional experience.

It is not about knowing someone else intimately. In fact, not knowing the lover all that well is an essential part of it.

Romeo hardly spoke with Juliet, but we get it: he’s in love.

Shakespeare again: “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” (that one’s from As You Like It).

There is a flash, the proverbial bolt from the blue, and we fixate on this one person.


Why would we do this?

Evolutionary biologists will point out that each human being, being a carrier for a particular set of DNA, needs to replicate that DNA by a union with another.

This union, to be achieved despite the nuisances and distractions caused by the company of others, simply cannot be based on a rolling calculus of this person’s… favorability.

I mean none of us is all that, when you get down to it!

So it has been suggested that this process is more effective if there is a precognitive, non-rational basis for the bond between two people making babies. Otherwise it would be just too unstable.

Hence: love.


I tend to buy that explanation.

It certainly feels hapless and uncontrollable, falling in love. It feels as if forces are acting on our will, forces that are only marginally concerned with our own welfare – as a whole person – and are more concerned with a fervent urge to reproduce so as to promulgate a particular DNA sequence.

Water cools not love; love heats water!

You can’t apply the water of human reason, consideration, thinking, to the raging fire of Eros, and expect to master it.

It doesn’t have much to do with you – “you” is merely a shell here, something tossed about by the force of nature.


Of the five forms of love that I mentioned at the beginning, therefore, I think that Eros deserves the least sustained thinking and mulling over, oddly.

Don’t get me wrong. It is a ravishing experience for anybody presently having it– worthy of poems, worthy of art, of song. Thank god for Aprhodite.

It is overwhelming, uncontrollable. It it is ubiquitous. It is hugely determinative of the paths we take in relationships.

Yet it is also, ultimately, somewhat easy to dismiss, somewhat laughable even, because… well, because it burns out.

The crazy neurochemical bonding often remains even after a relationship ends – a neural network linked deep to the limbic brain. But whether or not the relationship goes on or not, this bonding will remain somewhat static, once it is it achieved.

After all, ecstasy cannot be improved upon, can it?

Hence this kind of love becomes more and more irrelevant as time goes on.


You’ve got the breathless head-over-heals feeling? Good! Still there? Good! Let’s hope it lasts a long, long time…

Will this determine whether the relationship works?

Not really that much, I think.


In other words, it definitely isn’t cosmic. It’s quite the opposite.

It is, seen plainly, a very earthly, very material thing:

What is Eros?

It is the beginning of a relationship.

Now the fun is really about to start!


Parental Love


How could I say those disparaging things about Eros, about romantic love, Tom?

It is tremendously important to the people in it! It’s life and death! Have you not watched Pride and Prejudice? Have you not read The Sorrows of Young Werther? Have you never listened to Lionel Richie?

Yes, yes.

I get it. It works!

People come careening off of the high of the first 3 weeks or so of a dizzying love affair, and that makes them bear down and endure the next 6 months of “getting to know each other.”

And that 6 months, or two years, or three years, what have you, can make them prepared to raise babies together and to create a stable home for an extended period.

Without Eros where would we be? …A bunch of lonely hipsters sipping coffee at Philz, doing crossword puzzles, something like that.


Let me say it again: GO FOR IT. Enjoy Eros to the hilt.

But don’t worry too much about it.


Oh, and when you have enjoyed romantic love” to the hilt” for a while, funny how it happens about nine months later, you may experience a new kind of passion…

Parental love.

The thing about this love you feel for your children – it is not anticipated by anything in your life.

It hits you like a piano falling from the sky. Crunch! Tinkle! Twaaang!

One day you are a person with wishes, dreams, opinions, habits – and then – CRASH – you are a protector of your little ones.

This is what Eros hath wrought.

Farewell Eros!

Welcome, milk and diapers.


You thought falling in love was bad. This is the one that really gets under your skin.

It commands you.

It surges through you when you look at your babies, sleeping in their cribs, curled up in your arms, crawling or waddling across the room for a Cheerio or to pet a gray kitten or to grab a tipped-over bottle or to fall into your outstretched arms again, pressed against your chest.

It is a passion, like Eros. Sure. But it is usually a more lasting one, and it has its own qualities.

I am wondering if you will agree with this… But for me, being Dad has meant, above all else – from the beginning – a constant alternation between two opposing states: exaltation and worry.


The exaltation part is easy.

Whenever I so much as look at my children, from each of their births up to today, I feel it. (Parents, you know what I am talking about.) I can’t help it: I look at my children and I am convinced… they are perfect!

Absolutely perfect! They might frustrate me, fuss, whine, spill their drinks, break a window, forget their manners, but all of that is superficial. Underneath, I remain convinced that everything about each of them is exactly as it should be in the best of all possible worlds.

This was a new experience.

Things are never supposed to be perfect!

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” right? (Originally a line from Immanuel Kant, appropriated by our old friend Isaiah Berlin)

So it came as a surprise to discover that, when you become a mom or a dad, there is something that strikes you as perfect in this world after all.

I hadn’t thought that was possible. But then, I hadn’t had children yet.


And the opposite? The worry part?

Unfortunately, this part is easy too. For me it began right away, from the first minutes of my first child George’s life outside the womb, right through Cole’s and Adeline’s births to the present.

What if he falls and hits his head?

How can I keep her warm?

What if I don’t do the right things as a parent?

Where should they go to school? What if others are cruel to them? Are they eating the right food to get the nourishment they need? Should we be putting them to sleep earlier?

Why doesn’t her fever go down?

Is that cough the beginning of the croup?

It is endless.

As all parents do, though, Renée and I soon learned to carry on, despite our worries.

We even learned to mute that exaltation part on occasion, so as not to annoy our friends more than we could help (an all-important skill for any new parents: training yourself to shut up, on occasion, about your own children!).

My outlook on life, which had been so caught up in what I wanted to achieve, shifted immediately upon becoming a dad.

The central question of my and Renée’s life became:

What is best for our babies?


But Parental love is not merely an alternating effusion of tenderness… and concern, adoration… and terror, exaltation… and worry.

As any parent soon learns, it involves boundary-setting, rules, discipline – in short, it involves the setting down of values, the use of frames of reference, the imposition of some kind of order, to all the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday life.

When you express disapproval for a child’s rude tone, when you take away the driving privileges of a teenager who spent a weekend binge-drinking with friends, when you have a tearful talk about how you, as the parent, or she, as your child, or both of you, may have overreacted and your need to apologize – all of these actions are grounded in a set of largely unchanging (though constantly revised) values that trump the effusions of feeling.

So Parental love, we might say, unlike Eros, is as I see it, a commitment to an ongoing process.


This is not to say that the rewards aren’t huge. That you don’t have moment of supreme satisfaction and dizzy joy in your children’s company.

But the interface of your Parental love with everyday obligations is – it seems to me – notably different from that of Romantic love.

It is something akin to a long, nuanced code, a collaborative work by the parents (or any other responsible adults involved), with actions and consequences dictated by changing circumstances as you age, but constraints written into the programming.

And this code, if read properly, tells much about who you are as a person (not only what you do as a parent).


What can the contrast of Eros and Parental love reveal to us about the nature of love?

Is it even useful to compare them, considering how different their expression is?

I think so.

First, the similarities…

They both, obviously, release enormous reserves of passion and emotion and dedication.

The lover can perch under her window, all night, hoping for a glimpse of his beloved on the balcony.

The parent can sit at the side of a child, all night, applying damp washcloths to his head.

But there are obvious differences too…

Whereas one is a wild ride, a heart-throbbing trance, damn the consequences – the other is a drawn-out act of devotion and service, informed by clear values. (Well, in theory – though on a day to day basis it too feels like a wild ride.)

This progression is a natural one, as we age.

But I believe that it is significant; my sense is that it represents a progression from the springs, the waterfall, the source, to the thing itself, the river.


Parental love, I want to suggest to you therefore, is a kind of preparation.

We are – it seems to me – learning, through our acts of devotion to our children, what it is to love more deeply.

We are learning that love is not simply a feeling. That it is not a single gesture.

It is a sequence of actions over time.

It is a modulation. It is us, in time, interacting with the world around us, grounded in our deepest estimation of what matters in that world.

(Is this true, this progression that I am perceiving? Or this just a crackpot valuation, based on my own psychological needs as a dad? Do the different forms of “love” really have different depths? Again, I am going to rely on you all to challenge me on all this.)



So we started with love for another human being, specifically.

And now we have arrived at the third form of love in my breakdown: love for all human beings, generally.

How do we get from one… to the other?


This one, the awakening of compassion, is the most widely venerated and celebrated form of love in the world, perhaps.

This is the one that Buddha awakened to. The one that Jesus preached. That Saints emulate. That Gandhi showed.

Love for a stranger, uncaused, unprompted, unprovoked, naturally occurring.

We all bow down to it.

(Well, except some hard-core libertarians, I guess? Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, do you want to comment?)


Let’s conjure some examples in our minds.

The Good Samaritan stopping to give aid and comfort.

The stranger giving mouth-to-mouth to a near-drowned child.

The neighbor stopping by with a casserole, a fresh peach pie, an electric drill.

The congregation praying. The doctor healing with a hug. The driver stopping to give a homeless man a blanket.

The soldier, rescuing an injured enemy from the battlefield.

The love that needs not specificity.

The love that is powerful for the very reason that it is not specific.



The first thing to remark about compassion is that it is… highly unreliable.

Sometimes we can experience it, access it, without trouble.

Watching some play or movie full of strong sentiment, Schindler’s List or the like, we want to bolt out of our seats to help. We want to defy the authorities that be and risk our lives in helping someone else. At these times we are all but compelled by emotions, and an unusually clear narrative.

What about the other times, though? What about the times when we are late for work, fixated on a deadline, feeling grouchy, just about to run out of fuel, stressed about our own finances?

What about when the person is annoying, or disgusting, or odd?

What about when we know we will be dragged in to another family’s drama, a friend’s relationship?

In those times, unless we are a saint, then — we have to admit it, don’t we? — we may very well want to keep walking, live and let live, narrow our focus.

What, then, is the importance of this form of love we are calling compassion, if it is so unreliable?

And why should we have celebrate it, venerate it, consider it, anyway?


In some religious traditions there is a command from God to love other people. In others, there is a belief in some kind of unity, some divine Oneness, which leads humans to care for one another.

Even in secular thinking, as it has emerged over the past two centuries, there are fundamental precepts that protect the dignity of all human beings and the sanctity of all life. These have, in many cases, been inherited from religion but then stripped of God-references. Often they are grounded, instead, in some kind mix of Natural Law theory and Utilitarian ethics – the unexamined, hand-me-down moral presumptions of our contemporary culture.

But when you look at ourselves more accurately, of course, as the products of evolution, a particular species of nearly hairless, bipedal primates, who evolved over time to have quite complicated methods of manipulating symbols and the material world around us for purposes of survival – well, you start to wonder where compassion falls into this.

A person might privately wonder:

Is it really so useful for me?

Should I bother to aspire to it anyway, if it so arbitrary and unreliable – and often so hypocritical?


The obvious, first-line response to this is that we do – each of us – have an interest in survival of our gene pool through community defense.

There may have been a process of natural selection that favored those homo sapiens who were willing to share their resources, on occasion, with others, even, on occasion, sacrifice for others. These genes – and these tendencies – may have survived more assaults, diseases, and other catastrophic events and threats, through the millennia. (The scientist and writer E.O. Wilson, for one, is a vocal proponent of this point of view. Others dispute it.)


Yet, even if this were true, that compassion and self-sacrifice and altruism fulfill some evolutionary function (in replicating our DNA), why should we practice compassion now?

Knowing now, in the light of modern science and knowledge of the universe, that there is no dictate from God (at least, we can all agree, there is no evidence in support of such a hypothesis), then what is our relationship with compassion?

Should we foster it? Nurture it? Continue to venerate and celebrate it?


Studies show that everyone’s compassion has definite limits. We are more inclined to send money in response to an ad with the image of a single African child with a hair-lip, rather than a large group of children with hair-lips. Advertising campaigns for non-profits know this.

Our brains seem designed for personal, face-to-face compassion. Oddly, as the numbers get larger – 10, 10,000, 1,000,000 – our compassion is reduced rather than increased!

Also we have a remarkable tendency to feel compassion for people who look like us. If we consider someone “one of us” we tend to care for his or her welfare more than if we… other them.

These may be familiar quirks of the human brain. But they are significant for our discussion, because they indicate to us that our compassion may very well be merely a neurochemically induced adaptive behavior…

Again: why should we care?


I want to argue that, just as for Parental Love, the form of love that we call Compassion is – in its best form – not merely a reactive experience.

The sensations of empathy and moral righteousness that we watch when we see a stirring movie, or that prompt us to send money to a cause based on a photo of a child with an unfortunate birth defect – these are more feelings than true compassion. They represent a neurochemical surge, a habit of the mind, an evolutionary gambit by our genes.

Nothing wrong with that at all. We all enjoy feelings of empathy and moral righteousness – I do… Don’t you?

Still, let’s be honest.


When we talk about the love of the form of Compassion, I believe that we are more accurate if we talk about it in terms of a series of underlying commitments.

We choose certain commitments, in this case about the larger world that we want to live in, and then we act on them.

For me, one commitment I am making is that the world I want to live in has a default position of concern and care for each individual. Even strangers to me.

There are times, no doubt, when this is trumped by other considerations, such as emergency conditions, threats to my own immediate family and close friends, or even a persistent lack of efficacy, when weighed against the costs to other aspects of life. But these exceptions don’t delegitimize the default position.


There are aspects of my experience that lead me to experience compassion…

Coming as I do from a resource-rich country, when I look at the global distribution of resources and opportunities, I am willing to subscribe to a basic world-wide safety net, through aid programs and the like, even though it will impact my personal resources.

Or another: I want the political framework of my own country to reflect the value and dignity and life of each person individually – as we do under the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment for example, or the Bill of Rights.

When I can, I want to donate my money or time to reliable groups serving those who are poor or otherwise hurting.


At the same time, if I am honest then I have to recognize that there are limits to my compassion.

I do not drain my bank account by thousands of dollars to send my resources to, say, victims of the international sex trade, or tsunami victims, or struggling farmers in Somalia. (Even though I have a feeling that I would like to do more.)

The brutal truth is that, in these cases, I don’t calculate that my dollars and resources will effect enough of a change to compensate for the loss of opportunity and pleasure for myself and my own family.

There is no doubt, that to each of those victims and recipients, my generosity would certainly compensate for the marginal loss of utility I would experience. But not to me!

In other words, there is, sadly, a limit to my compassion.

I would guess that it is a limit to yours as well?

If we didn’t have these limits, we would be spending every waking hour working on the behalf of defenseless and abused children, wouldn’t we? (Is there something we should be doing instead of that on grounds of compassion? I don’t think there is.)


So what am I saying?

Do we love too little? Are we too uncharitable?

That’s not what I am saying. No.

My point is that each of us has made commitments – some of which we would die for.

If the government of the United States began rounding up the poor or homeless, we would, I am confident, form a militia and go into rebellion – at the risk of our lives, even if we face no threat ourselves.

We are committed to a basic vision of how we want the world to look, filled with concern and care for others.

But our vision has limits. This is unreasonable only if you think that this world is perfectible. Only if you think that we could have an agreed-upon distribution of resources ensuring everyone’s happiness.

I suspect that the key to this form of love (as in all love, ultimately?) is the tragic sense, knowing the limits: i.e., sadness.

Once we recognize that the world is tragic, that there are always costs and benefits, trade-offs, compromises, irreconcilables, then we can accept love as it really is: a hodge-podge, a compromise itself, but a glorious one.


The strictures of the world’s religion were certainly helpful for many millennia.

They had a downside too though: they often inspired us/them thinking, ingroup/outgroup mentalities, stubbornly perfectionist thinking and its attendant moral guilt and confusion. (Not to mention they encouraged habits of looking for absolute certainty and respecting lies and disregarding evidence…)

When we get clearer about the nature of compassion, then we see that this form of love may be amazing, may bring tears to our eyes… But at the same time it is inextricably human, the experience of one particular nearly hairless bipedal species of primate on one planet.

Keeping both aspects of compassion in mind clears our vision, makes us more capable of loving this way.

We aren’t as sanctimonious. We aren’t as hypocritical. Neither are we as paralyzed by indecision.


So, the way I see it anyway, the question for this kind of love is not: How can I care for all of humankind?

Or: How can I get a strong emotional hit from Doing Good today?

No, the question is more modest, something along the lines of: Who needs my help today, to the extent I can give it?

Or: What am I willing to do that, even considering the cost is worth it, because it is how I want the world to look?


Sympathy is part of this, but only part. More important, it seems to me, is whether we have gotten clear about our underlying priorities. This is what makes compassion an act of love and not simply a one-off, a gesture, a mere feeling.


I want to reemphasize, though, that I don’t think there is anything wrong with feelings.

They are the core drivers of what we do. They are the basis of reason, in fact – contrary to most people’s dualistic way of thinking.

It’s just that love is, I think, not merely a bunch of feelings – it is not a quiver of emotion-tipped arrows, ready to shoot at a given target (a date in the candlelight, your new-born child, a refugee from a war-zone).

It is – is it? – so much more than that.

Which brings us to the most important one, in my estimation…



What do we mean, in practical terms, if we say that we are trying to love more deeply?

So far, we have looked at three forms of love: Eros, Parental Love and Compassion.

As we progressed from Eros – pure passion – to…

Parental Love, which, although passionate, requires clear values and unyielding attention over a lifetime – to…

Compassion, which, if meaningful, must be based on an underlying moral outlook, willing to stake claims and make distinctions…

We have seen these streams meet, and our idea of love has deepened along the way.

To love more deeply (I have said too many times already) is not merely about feeling more deeply.

My point is that loving more deeply is, surprisingly, weirdly, wonderfully, about getting clear on values.

It is, in fact, living.


Now we come to the deep, dark channel, the one I am listing (quite arbitrarily, I know) as the fourth kind of love.

This one underlies the others, I think; it absorbs them.

It is lined with green life, with tangled trees, with weeds, with bird life and water-scooters and reptiles and fish. The mud oozes. The bacteria breed. The dragonflies buzz around our heads.

This dark channel is deep because it is bounded only by your whole life.

It is bounded by the limits of your character, the preferences and habits you accumulate, the reach of your language and even your imagination.

This form of love I am calling Commitment.


What are the commitments I am making in my life?

What are the commitments you are making?

(I’ll leave this here. Thinking is one thing… actually going there is another! Let’s all take a moment to go there on our own…)



Are we done? Have I gotten us started? Have I provoked you enough, then?

(How long is this ramble going to go on for anyway, Tom?)


Almost. But we are not quite done.

There is one additional form of love – one additional stream – that I don’t think we should neglect:



It strikes me that Reverence is far more organic than the other kinds of love I have been talking about.

It grows, unguided, unnoticed even.


The Zen practitioner begins to love the chilly air in the morning. The glint of light on the side of the mountain.

The marine biologist begins to love the chirping sound of an approaching dolphin.

The football fan loves the “ba-ba-ba-baaa” of the opening theme music for Monday Night Football.


These experiences become habits, become rituals, become written in our hearts.

Reverence, we might say, is the echo of the choices we make in our lives.

It is the after-image burned on our eyes.

Even better, perhaps we should think of it as the shape that is pressed into the raw material of the world around us, each of us individually, by our bodies and our brains.


If you grow up in the Sierra Nevadas. With that crisp pine needle smell in the air, the dry boulders, the quiet whisper of rivers and the borders of lakes – these become a great love. A wild fire burning the mountaintops is more than a news story. It is a wound, a source of heartbreak.

If you grow up in Berkeley, as I did, and we grow accustomed to the feeling of fall in the air in November (it comes late here!), then you grow into a great love for the red berries that cluster on bushes, the rivulets of rainwater in storm drains on the sides of the residential streets, the yellow-leafing Japanese maples with their jagged edges dancing, the smoke from chimneys lingering in the air in the evening. This becomes a form of love, a reverence we have for place that is quite different from that of the Sierras.

When we encounter, over a lifetime, the patter of squirrels chasing each other in the branches, or…

the time we entered into the green eyes of a black panther in a random National Geographic we were reading when we were young, or…

when we became interested in the patterns in the webs of spiders in a school lesson, or…

when we follow, for many years, the political scene, with its claims and cross-claims of freedom and equality and, above all, fairness –

all this can become for us a form of love.


Work is born of such love. Many careers are born of such love.

Love what you do, goes the maxim.

But this implies that they were ever separate.

In fact, when people “love what they do,” they actually have grown love – in the form of Reverence – alongside their devotion to the tasks involved in their work.

The doing and the loving are overlapping – and in many ways inseparable.


This understanding of love helps me to understand religion, actually.

For surely, the study of the Talmud, the practice of Zen meditation, the discipline of praying to Allah, the door to door persistence of the Jehovah’s Witness – all of these are forms of Reverence as well.

They are, of course, entirely without any evidence to support their claims.

They pledge themselves to an imaginary God – or a make-believe mythos, in the case of Buddhism – crafted by men and women of… the Bronze or the Iron age, as the case may be.

But I see now that this suits some people’s purposes just fine – it gives them a mental image, a guide, a useful structure, if you will, upon which to project their anxieties and wisdom and intuitions.


Looking at religious devotion through the prism of love, then, we can see that, what religious devotion is enacting is… at its deepest level, not a truth-claim about the existence of God or a particular mythos (nirvana and the world of illusions, heaven and hell, etc.).

Rather, it is enacting a set of associations with the material world – an active and ongoing relationship, actually.

Hence Christian devotion, for example, is a form of love because it asks of its followers to adopt a set of habits and resources, as well as the aesthetics of a particular sect (the Roman Catholic Latin mass; the African-American gospel choir; the paunchy, sunglasses and Hawaiian print shirt-wearing parishioner of the glass-windowed, high-tech, Californian evangelical church, and so on).

Jewish devotion and love is attached to the rituals and identity claims of the Jewish temple, but also the idea of Israel, the Sabbath, the story of Yom Kippur, Manischewitz wine, and all the rest. Islam is… well, you get the point.

This is a more understandable way of looking at religion, for a secular person like me. It comes as a relief.


So this is why when you point out the unsupported nature of the truth-claims in a given religion you make no headway at all with a believer! For the “beliefs” that you are shattering are only a surface, a thin sheet of ice.

The stuff that lies underneath – the Reverence that lies underneath – remains untouched.

Hence the utter failure of atheists to de-convert religious people.

(At least in the moment… Over time I suspect that even our Reverence for places and things and rituals and habits requires, on some level, a sense of the accuracy and truth-telling of the choices that formed it. So the effect of breaking the taboos surrounding criticizing religion might be delayed, but still may be worth it in the interest of saving the planet.)


Reverence can also become excessive.

Think of Sinatra’s “I did it myyyyyyy way!”

Think of the narcissistic personality type.

Sometimes the contour of one’s life choices and variegated experiences becomes more than a form of love. It becomes, itself, an object of adoration, of self-love.

Or someone’s attachment to a place or a thing can take the form of fanaticism – nationalism, tribalism, an “in-group” mentality and all costs.

Or it can lead to unthinking submission to authority, passivity, even sloth.


In the end, though, this form of love, like a waterfall tumbling over rocks, often has a beautiful form of its own, despite being an organic creation.

The fuller the life lived, I suspect, the greater feeling of reverence at the end of it.

Not a bad way to end the play, with that glow you get as the leave the theater.


Okay. That’s a lot of words. Take anything you find useful and forget the rest! See you at the meeting. What shall we do there? I hope this helps us to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about love. A more difficult question, perhaps, is how do we actually go about loving?

Notes on Our Sixth Meeting — LOVE


We gathered on a clear evening as the sun set over the Bay.

Rosé and red, bread and cheese, strawberries. A good feeling filled the room.

At 8:30 we made our way to the living room to begin our discussion.

 1. A Meaningful Life

I launched us off by connecting the question of love to the broader question that our group has been grappling with: how to live a meaningful life without the certainties and received wisdom of religion.

With this in mind, I read aloud a quotation I had come across recently in a review of Life After Faith by Philip Kitcher:

“Each meaningful life is distinguished by a theme, a conception of the self and a concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue. That theme should be autonomously chosen by the person whose life it is.”

Albeit the language is clunky (a “concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue,” really?). But even so, this statement made me pause when I read it. I had to put the magazine down and ask myself:

So what is the “theme” of my life, then?

To my surprise, I found that my answer to this was clear and immediate: love.

As I confessed to the group, in recent years I have discovered that the theme of my life has become… trying to love better. The “concomitant identification” of my goals, therefore, is… that I want to be:

more receptive,

more emotionally available,

more fully present,

in all of my interactions with other people, whether they be family, friends or strangers.

In other words, I want to see each person I encounter as a whole person and not in merely an instrumental sense.

I hope to get better at this, day to day, year to year, until I die.

Yet, I admitted, I am troubled, too, by a nagging sense of the incoherence of this theme and the sheer impossibility of these goals!

For by pursuing any one kind of love to its limit – say if I aim for the altruistic, empathic love of Gandhi or Florence Nightingale – I will in fact limit my capacity for other kinds of love — for example, my availability to my family. There are unavoidable trade-offs between the various kinds of love.

So despite my yearning to “love better” and see everybody “as a whole,” despite my sense that this is my chosen theme at this point in my life, I don’t really have the foggiest how to pursue these things.

I ended on this somewhat downbeat note.

Yann spoke up to say, charitably, that he didn’t see any problem at all in my choice of theme!

He explained why this was so by way of contrast to his own. His choice of theme, he ventured, is a little different than mine: he wants, above all, to explore the “gray zones” in life — those places where you won’t find any easy answers, where you feel unsure and confused, where paradoxes abound.

Accordingly, Yann’s “concomitant identification” (I can’t help myself — it’s too tempting to use that clunker) — where was I? — yes, Yann’s concomitant identification of his goals is to seek out and navigate these gray zones. So he felt quite comfortable hearing about my troubled quest to “love better” because he recognized in it… a worthwhile gray zone to explore.

He urged me to embrace the unresolvable conflicts in love.

“Don’t get hung up on whether you really ever learn to ‘love better,’ Tom!” he counseled, “Just trying to love better is the important part; as soon as you do, you are already there!”

With characteristic fervor, Miriam resisted the whole notion of living a “meaningful life” in the first place. She couldn’t stand the quotation, and not only for its awkward phrasing.

“What’s all this talk of meaning?” she asked. “Just live!” she exclaimed. “Don’t worry about the meaning.”

When it comes to love, Miriam added, her understandings of it are very different from those expressed in my writing on Eros, Parental Love, Compassion, Commitment, and Reverence (See the last entry on Five Kinds of Love). If prompted, she would come up with an entirely different breakdown of the forms that love takes, she insisted.

For example, where I describe the love I feel for my children as a kind “intoxication” akin to that of romantic love, she feels nothing of the kind.

“I suppose I love my children,” she said — as the room burst out laughing. “But — no really, I’m serious! — I don’t experience it that way! I only surmise that I love them from the nervous feeling I get when one of them doesn’t return home at the expected time. In my daily interactions with them, sorry, but I’m not constantly thrumming with a sensation of love.”

Walden said that he thinks it is all far more simple than we are making it. The “theme” for Walden, if he had to say, would consist of some far more practical advice: “Don’t be an asshole.”

He noted that this imperative has very different ramifications, depending on whether you are talking to his spouse over the kitchen table or trying to merge lanes on the freeway. In both cases, however, it contains meaning enough to him. Try not to be an asshole, and the world opens up to you.

I said, “But aren’t you setting the threshold for love pretty low, Walden?”

“No,” he answered. “It’s quite a challenge, really.” (Though he pulls it off very well, I would observe.)

Our dear friend Yann, ever the analytical engine, took this opportunity to break the group’s conversation down into three levels of love, which he suggested might together build a… magnificent palace of love.

  1. Don’t be an asshole.
  2. Try to be empathetic to others.
  3. Make a conscious choice (“autonomously chosen”) to frame or thematize your life in terms of your commitments and concomitant goals (ha! I got it in), which are a form of love.

Ken insisted, however, that this #3, at least as expressed in the quotation I read at the beginning of the meeting, pointed to an unfounded value-judgment that he could not condone.

To Ken, a meaningful life does not require that it be consciously, “autonomously chosen.” After all, he pointed out, plenty of people around the world go through their days in a moment-to-moment or spontaneous way without consciously framing their theme and their goals. Are their lives less meaningful? He would doubt it.

(Ken didn’t mention it, but I think that implicit in this question is a devastating socio-economic critique of all this talk of “meaning.” Many people in the world simply have to work too hard just to survive, and therefore don’t have time for this kind of language of conscious choices. Though I’m not sure that is true. Many of them do make conscious choices — to their neighbors, to defending their country, to providing resources to their families. They may not talk about it, but they do live it.)

If I remember correctly, Yann still stood his ground.

Based on personal experience, he told us, he believes that, regardless of the question of its rarity or not, this effort at making conscious choices does add to the depth of person’s experience.

For example, he told the group, he personally reveres the natural world. He thinks often of the fragility of our blue spinning planet, in a dark and vast universe. Therefore, in his career choices Yann has strived to position himself in a field in which he gets to protect and defend the Earth and its environment. And he has found that by consciously dedicating himself to protecting its environment — an act of love — he finds more meaning in his work and life.

I supported Yann in this with still another example of the rewards of making a conscious choice, based on my experience… I mentioned to the group how I have, to my horror, witnessed wedding vows in which the bride and groom vow to be true to each other “so long as it brings each of us joy” – or some such contingent agreement. I say “to my horror” because, to my mind, the power of the traditional wedding ceremony is that it frames the choice as one for that is precisely not contingent, i.e. one that will last forever“To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” goes the traditional vows. The couple speaks them aloud, before their community, and so, I think, deepens the meaning of their relationship. When I married Renée (at Millerton Point on Tomales Bay) I guess you might say I took this to heart. At a certain point in the ceremony I leaned back and shouted at the top of my voice that I wanted the gulls, the grebes, the leopard sharks, the egrets, the coyotes, the foxes, hell, the rock cod, all the living creatures — and of course all the friends and family present — to know that “Renée Cole is my woman, and I am her man!”

This vow has been important to me. I was and am 100% in.

In view of these kinds of experiences in life, I agree with Yann that there is more to love than just the effort not to be an asshole. Not that this is not important! (Yann hilariously commented that while he may be strong on #3, the thematizing part, he is very weak on #1; he acts like an asshole on a regular basis. So although the above ground design of his palace of love is spectacular, the foundation needs a little work…)

2. But Is Love Enough?

The Beatles famously said it’s… all we need. Nothing you can say that can’t be sung. Etc.

In his lovely song, “I Threw It All Away,” Dylan announces:

“Love is all you need.

It makes the world go round.

Love and only love…

It can’t be denied!

No matter what you think about it.

You just won’t be able to live without it.

Take a tip from one who’s tried.”

If you have never heard this song, here it is:

“Yet how do you propose to go about it, Tom, if you want to do more than not be an asshole?” Walden asked.

“What would it mean, in practical terms, to have love as the primary goal of your life?”

“Good question,” I said.

Would I walk around Berkeley, barefoot, tending to anybody and everybody we meet, giving out hugs and back massages and, I don’t know, candied orange peel? Cold cash?

I admitted, as I did at the outset of the meeting, that I wasn’t at all sure how to answer that.

Despite having “to love better” as my chosen theme, I am not at all sure how to enact it.

I mean, it’s plainly not enough to walk around giving out good vibes. We have all met those people who are — what shall we call them? —  I’ll say… mad huggers. Those people who take every opportunity to gaze into your eyes soulfully and talk about how beautiful it is, this moment we are sharing, together; who offer massages and soothing words where other people offer only a tight smile and a wave.

Aren’t they practicing love?

Why, then, are they often so irritating?

What is the relationship between loving better… and using your discretion?

Between loving better, loving more authentically… and holding onto your capacity for critical judgment?

Interestingly, it only gets more complicated the more you follow the thread of love.

Gray zones indeed.

Florence read a passage from a book (I didn’t catch the writer’s name — Florence?), in which the “art of loving” is set alongside the “art of working,” the “art of playing,” “the art of dying,” all kinds of other themes in life. For Florence, love – though important – is only one of the many interests we pursue in our varied lives.

This started us talking more broadly about all the different values we may have, aside from love.

Somehow Larry Ellison came up, as the antithesis of someone dedicated to being loving. (We acknowledged that this may be totally unfair — a cruel cartoon version of a much more complicated man. Sorry Larry, but it was useful to the discussion to make you the bete noire of the moment).  For Larry Ellison, former CEO of Oracle, apparently, work is of supreme importance.




These goals may be in conflict with the pursuit of love, but they are legitimate values too, are they not?

Renée made a valiant effort to distinguish between the money-driven achievements of Larry Ellison and someone like Steve Jobs, who looked at work as a creative act with the aim of improving people’s lives. But, even if we go with Steve, the point still stood. Why should we emphasize love, and only love, over all the other competing aspects of our lives? Florence and others were adamant that love is most decisively not all we need.

“So you want to put love in a box. Tie it up with a nice ribbon,” I said despairingly to Florence. “Give it a place on the shelf alongside the other aspects of life, be they money or power or a good wine. Well, I reject that! I want to say that love is of a different nature. That it trumps these other concerns. I’m with the Beatles and Dylan here: I think that, on the deepest level, all we need is love (well, and bread and water — hey, we are veering back to Epicurus!).

“And I say this not as a piece of dogma, but based on experience. Don’t we find that our most rewarding and rich experiences come from love and connection to other people? If so, then why can’t we non-supernaturalists assert a goddamned priority to love?”

Nadine countered that love comes in many forms. Pablo Picasso may have treated the women in his life roughly at times; indeed he may have even acted like an asshole. But he created stunning paintings and sculptures that in their own way were acts of love. Why should we insist that he conform to one restrictive idea of how to love?

I held my ground. “But I do want to say to Larry Ellison, or Pablo Picasso, that they are missing out. I want to say, calmly, even to Picasso, ‘Hey, man, um… I have an idea for you. Maybe try painting a little less… and loving more? We get it: you are very, very good at that. You find great satisfaction in putting paint on a canvas and ordering the world that way. Many people in the world appreciate your talent. Nothing wrong with it. Yet, you know what Pablo?, you may find a little more harmony in your days by turning your attention to the people in your life, to your friends. By trying to be more kind and consistent to the people who love you. Take your kid on a walk to the local park. Talk to her. Listen to her.”

I can’t resist linking to this song by the Modern Lovers here… Consider it a light diversion.

3. Can the Secular Outlook Ever Be Morally Prescriptive?

My advice to Picasso of course prompted a storm of derision (I had broken the unspoken taboo that prevents secular individuals from making moral judgments). That’s ridiculous! was the general consensus. People are all different! Who are you to judge!

“Tom, it’s a village!” cried Renée, “Some are the healers and the lovers. Others are the messengers. Some are the architects. Even others are the warriors. You can’t ask them all to subscribe to the same creed of love. Even though, yes, love is important to everybody.”

“But if it is so important, and you acknowledge that, why can’t we non-supernaturalists ever prescribe it for others?” I asked. I explained that this is one of the things that I admire in religious traditions: their courage in distinguishing right from wrong, and their boldly stated prescriptions for the good life. The ancient fables and in-group mentalities and general silliness that come along with religions make them prohibitive to me (and worse, dangerous in my opinion). Yet I don’t want humanity to lose the capacity for a collective moral language. And I fear that the secular world is losing just that.

We can pursue intellectual questions all we want. We can discuss Epicurus and the Scientific Revolution, and it is all interesting and provocative. But can we not then take it a step further and say: How about all of us trying to love more, to love better, in the next week! 

Can’t we do what churches and temples and mosques and New Age gatherings the world over do every day: ask ourselves to be better people?

If we can’t say that love is at the core of experience — and should be valued over, say, bungee-jumping, or late-night meetings focusing on innovative financial investing strategies, or wacky self-expression in the form of Burning Man campsites — then this group is no more than an idle intellectual salon. And maybe that’s what it is, but I want it to be more! I want us to venture into the gray zone of asking those questions traditionally reserved for religion:

What is good?

What is bad?

What brings us into harmony with the world around us?

What takes us further away into confusion?

Lucy spoke up to say that such talk is, ironically, becoming all too familiar in business settings. Corporations, having consumed all forms of subversion , tamed rock n’ roll and punk and softened the idea of anarchy itself into cute little dress-up games, are now launching a new imperial venture: they are moving in on love.

Facebook has an internal slogan, Lucy informed us: “Ship love.”

As in: ship out the product of love to the consumer.

Google, of course, has: Don’t be Evil.

(I mentioned the Obama campaign’s slogan, “people-centered, data-driven,” which I had liked.)

Capitalism, run amuck, freed of the shackles of religious disapprobation, is merging the free-for-all of our acquisitive, consumerist society with the traditional language of love and morality.

“Yep. Love is a currency,” said Nadine, shaking her head.

We all agreed that this was an icky development.

I mean, Nike can tell me to “Just Do It,” fine, but I don’t want them to tell me what to do, thank you very much. If we non-supernaturalists, we secularists, don’t push ourselves into this uncomfortable “gray zone” of morality, then the ground being given up by religion will be occupied by profit-seeking corporations!

This is what I am talking about. There is a vacuum of sensible moral talk in the world, and it is filled by the worst kind of passionate intensity (You can’t help but think of Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming.)

I turned back to Walden. “Don’t be an asshole is the fall-back position of every culture, every civilization! It is simply the Golden Rule, stated negatively. Of course we don’t want to be assholes, Walden. But then neither does anybody who wants to play a socially acceptable role alongside others, anywhere in the world. There has got to be more than that.”

Gerry spoke up to say that he used to think that peace and harmony and love were morally prescriptive. He thought that everything was leading to an awakening. But then the world took a different turn, starting in the 80s. Now he isn’t so sure. He is aware of choosing to live in Berkeley among people who share his outlook, but he is less encouraged to try to persuade others to follow along. He had the look of a jaded idealist, like a Russian liberal democrat in the late summer of 1917. Once we believed… but now we know better.

Setenay remarked that much of these differences are cultural. In Turkey, for example, children are devoted for life to their parents. They would never criticize them to a friend or resist visiting during holidays. When she first moved to the United States, it shocked her to hear people talk of becoming “bored” with their parents!

I heard all this. And I acknowledged that is undeniable that there are many different forms and manifestations of love, emphasized in different ways in different cultures. Yet, I told the group, I still do believe that there is an undercurrent that is consistent through every culture, and in every person (except for psychopaths and the sorts of “malignant narcissists” Walden talked about). There is a human longing to connect in a complicated and ongoing way with other humans, to share affection and even bear the burden of one another’s suffering. I suspect that this can be brought out but must be fought for, defended, encouraged, in a moral language. Much in the way that parents try to shape their children’s outlook.

Call me crazy.

Ken mentioned that he is not so concerned about encouraging his children’s experiences of romantic love or Eros, since that will come naturally. He is more concerned, as a father, with encouraging their capacity for empathy.

But why not encourage, persuade, cajole grown-ups in this direction, too? We are not talking about compulsion, here. We are talking about standing for love.

Is that going too far?

The feeling I got from the group was that it was. Leave us alone. Don’t moralize.

I ended by arguing that if the world’s main ethic is “don’t be an asshole” it will soon devolve into everyone for herself. A blue spinning orb of people who are vaguely polite and disconnected and restless.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that seem to be where we are headed?

But let me end on a high note.

At one point Manon spoke to how she manages her day care in Berkeley with an emphasis on humane values, love, compassion, understanding. She said that this causes some conflicts with other administrators, who sometimes accuse her of being too “soft.” But she believes that it is okay to lose some opportunities, or even profit, in the name of love. This was inspiring to hear.

4. Where We Are Now

As it got late, people began to leave, as the discussion still ambled along. Usually we have a clear moment when we end the meeting, but this one sort of disintegrated — into a happy buzz of people talking in clusters, gathering their bags, waving a friendly goodbye at the door.

So I didn’t get to talk about the plan going forward.

My sense, though, is that we should pause. We have had wonderful conversations, every one of them. I have found them very valuable and inspiring. I hope you have too. But May is a busy end-of-school year time, and I think we should hold off on meeting.

Let’s pick this up in the fall!

In the meantime, please continue to share with our group, by email or on,  any reading you are doing or experiences you are having along these lines of meaning and non-supernaturalism and love and the scientific method and all the rest.

If you send me a post, or a poem, or a reading suggestion, I will put it up on the blog.

Thank you everybody!


Reading for Seventh Meeting — THE WORLD WITHOUT GOD


For the meeting on November 18, we will read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and/or John Gray’s The Silence of Animals.

Some Brief Thoughts in Anticipation of the Meeting

Though written some 130 years apart, both Zarathustra and The Silence of Animals vigorously reject religion and supernatural claims of all kinds. So far so good.

Both also make every effort to provoke their readers into new ways of looking at the world. We like that!

Yet both, to my mind, represent wrong turns in non-supernaturalist thinking, and that’s why I grouped them together.

After pronouncing that “God is dead,” Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, argues for a life of unbridled selfishness, captured in his vision of the übermensch, driven by the “Will to Power”. Nietzsche’s is a doctrine of cruelty and dominance, and he rejects any countervailing concerns for kindness, mutuality, respect for others.

It seems to me that Nietzsche seriously underestimates the complexity of the human animal. No doubt affected by thousands of years of conditioning, despite his brave and unorthodox mind, he conflates goodness with godliness. So once he strips humanity of its supernatural pretensions, he reflexively strips it of much that is to be valued in life. It’s a “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” kind of problem.

What about our inclination to love, Friedrich? What about our inclination to shape our values collectively?

Gray’s approach is at once more passive, and also more bleak than Nietzsche’s (you didn’t think that was possible? just wait). First the good news: Gray’s picture of a human being shorn of supernatural certainties is far more complex and up-to-date: he sees each of us, I think rightly, as a confused bundle of conflicting impulses, desperately conjuring myths to give our lives meaning. We are not dominated by a “Will to Power” anymore than we are dominated by a “Will to be Liked” — it’s all in a tangle.

Unlike Nietzsche, then, Gray recognizes that along with our self-interest and potential for cruelty, we are also capable of strong sentimental attachments to one another.

But to Gray, it’s all myth and therefore barren and pointless. He paints a picture of the human animal in a state of nature as a helpless, but vicious, beast. Society, he thinks, clothes us in a meaning that is only threadbare at best: a cheap suit, poorly tailored, called “progress,” or “humanistic” showing skin at the elbows and knees.

So in the end Gray throws up his hands, considering  our severe cognitive limitations and unresolvable internal conflicts. Whereas Nietzsche urges humans to be creative and active (though sociopathic), Gray urges us to focus merely on “seeing” the world more clearly.

This too seems to me to leave out much of what makes our lives interesting. Surely we can recognize our severe limitations while also acting in the world, no? Perhaps people can collectively, over time, improve their lot? Why does our status as animals (homo rapians, he calls us) eliminate this possibility altogether?

I hope you are provoked as I was. Enjoy the readings!


Notes on the Seventh Meeting — THE WORLD WITHOUT GOD


It was great to meet again after our long summer away.

At 8:30 we made our way to the living room and began our discussion.

Tom’s Presentation: Charting the Future of the Non-Supernatural Outlook

I started us off by referring to a chart that I had worked up on a whiteboard.

While reading Nietzsche and Gray over the last month, I explained to the group, I had found myself wondering how we might more clearly distinguish their respective positions.

That urge led me to wonder how we might visually represent the differences between Nietzsche and Gray’s and others’ expressions of non-supernaturalist thinking… and then how I might coordinate their various positions in relation to my own.

I quickly realized that I would need to devise a chart for this.

Here’s what I came up with:


The Chart

I explained that there are two axes: x and y.

The x, or “morality,” axis has POWER at the far left and LOVE at the far right. (I could have alternatively labeled it SELF at the far left, and OTHERS at the far right).

The y, or “worldview,” axis has SUPERNATURALISM at the top and NATURALISM at the bottom.

These two axes, crossing each other, generate four quadrants.

Quadrant I

In quadrant I at the upper right, we have at the maximum SUPERNATURAL, maximum LOVE position, who else but… Jesus. (I know it’s sort of cheating, since Jesus is himself supernatural, but it seemed the right place to start due to the familiarity of the message.)

Also in this quadrant I we find MLK, Ghandi, and Pope Francis (I put the Pope a little farther back on the x-axis, since there are so many power-based interests in the Vatican, and of course in Catholic dogma). President Obama is in this quadrant as well (though he is lower on the y-axis, since his religious attachments are thin, a matter of pragmatism and deep respect for civil rights history, as far as I can tell). He is joined by the Democratic Party as a whole.

Quadrant I is the location of much of the heroes of history: driven by supernatural ideals and commitments, but driven in the direction of helping humanity live better, more freely, more harmoniously.

For fun, I called quadrant I “The Best of Religion.”

Quadrant II

In quadrant II, at the upper left, we have ISIS occupying the position of maximum SUPERNATURAL (on the y-axis), paired with maximum POWER (on the x-axis).

ISIS is joined (am I being unfair?) by Ted Cruz. Some of his policy positions reflect a desire to help humanity, and we may presume that he has some limits to what he would do for power, so he drifts right along the x-axis a little towards LOVE… but not much. George W. Bush, who famously let it be known that God himself told him to invade Iraq (and cause, thereby, massive suffering), is there as well.

Hitler appears a little farther down the y-axis. His supernaturalism takes an idiosyncratic form, involving dreams of Aryan supremacy mixed with the Christian myths of perfectibility and the Rapture (read, Third Reich), but he lands in this quadrant II too.

I called this quadrant “Shit Ideologies.”

Quadrant III

At the lower left we have the corner of maximum NATURALISM and maximum POWER.

No illusions, just take what you can, baby!

A number of names came to mind: Pol Pot, Genghis Kahn (or was he supernaturally-inspired? not sure), the Marquis de Sade, Ayn Rand, Machiavelli. A little out from the corner we have Dick Cheney, Napoleon, Stalin, Lenin (this last one falling a little farther along the x-axis: he meant well, after all, though at a huge cost). I even stuck Mick Jagger in this quadrant (for the savage way he worked his way through women without concern for anyone else’s feelings).

Trump belongs here pretty obviously (he claims to be religious but his life shows approximately zero evidence of this). Finally, Vladimir Putin, as a KGB operative for many years, belongs in this quadrant, I think. His embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church is, by all accounts, merely a matter of political expediency.

This quadrant I named “Selfish Assholes.”

Quadrant IV

Where maximum NATURALISM meets maximum LOVE, at the lower right corner, we get some of my personal heroes: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a committed nonbeliever who fought for suffrage for women); Abraham Lincoln (creeping up the y-axis for his use of religious language in the Second Inaugural, though privately a nonbeliever whose worldview embraced the need for trade-offs and the tragic sense of loss); and of course Nelson Mandela who, though a Methodist in name, was not concerned with supernaturalism at all. Rather, his commitments were based on his concerns for human dignity and raw experience.

Others in this quadrant include John Lennon (he penned the anthem of this quadrant), Gloria Steinem, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson (riven with contradictions but still… the Declaration of Independence), Mark Twain…

This quadrant I called “The Old New Way.”


So, having laid out the chart, I then proceeded to lead the group in some brief thought experiments based on it.

I pointed out that there are some possible historical forces, producing what we may call “vectors,” that will operate on this chart over time.

A Vector Towards NATURALISM in the Arts

For one, I suggested, literature and the arts strike me as moving, over time, down the y-axis.

At the top, closer to SUPERNATURALISM, I put Dante, Prince, Blake, Yeats, and barely, Dylan. It would be easy to add many more artists to this list if we give it a moment’s thought: Homer… Masaccio… J. S. Bach… Tolstoy. There are so many gifted writers, musicians, painters and the like, who have, through the millennia, espoused a supernaturalist worldview.

Interestingly, at the center of the chart we find Proust and Shakespeare. Vast as their imaginations are, they make it nearly impossible to discern in their work a permanent move in any of the four directions.

As we move into the 20th and 21st centuries, however, we arrive at the artists who speak to the human experience in this time: Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, etc.

I have placed them all the way down at the NATURALISM base of the chart. But also note that they are square in the center of the POWER/LOVE axis, since they are more observers than moral actors.

In summary, I explained to the group, artists seem to hover at the center line, but are moving steadily down along the y-axis to enable an ever-more accurate understanding of the world (Shakespeare’s holding “the mirror up to nature”).

A Vector of “Good” People Down, from Quadrant I to Quadrant IV, as Love Becomes Secularized

It is my impression, I continued, that just as artists are moving downward, so are our heroes.

The selfless, self-sacrificing acts of, say, a Joan of Arc, or a Mother Theresa, are more commonly found among non-supernaturalists, in the present day. Think of the doctors who risk their lives to serve refugees or Ebola victims. Think of the environmental activists and social activists who fight for clean air, clean water, racial justice, gay and lesbian rights. Think of any college campus. These battles are more often unfolding in secular settings — rather than under the guise of supernaturalism.

I predicted, therefore, that over time this trend will continue, and quadrant I will empty out, carrying the Democratic Party with it. Its fervor will transfer to quadrant IV, the “Old New Way.”

Welcome, I would say to those former supernaturalists. There’s plenty of room for you in the natural world!

A Vector of “Bad” People Up, from Quadrant III to Quadrant II, Due to the Uses and Abuses of Ideology

This was the scariest part of my presentation, in my opinion.

What we are seeing in Europe and the United States, and has long been the case in the Middle East, I argued, is that so called “bad actors,” i.e. those people who seek power and dominance instead of love and connection, are gravitating towards ever-more-inflexible ideological commitments.

Franco in Spain served his ambitions for power by fostering the ideologies of Nationalism and Religion. As already seen, Putin has formed close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church for a similar reason. Lost, alienated young men across Europe find themselves drawn to join ISIS, as a means to channel for their rage, their urge for sexual conquest, their desire for adulation and status — broadly speaking, their lust for power.

In the U.S. of course the GOP long ago learned to harness voters’ self-interest and even hatred by way of a religious yoke: disgust for people of different races or orientations or circumstances can be made more politically effective when harnessed to the causes of “religious liberty” or “sexual purity.”

My point was that just as the “good” people closer to the LOVE side of the x-axis are moving down to NATURALISM, there seems to be a movement of “selfish” (or broken, confused, alienated, angry) people on the POWER side up to an increasingly committed SUPERNATURALISM.

This does not bode well for the future, as the two diagonally opposed quadrants (II and IV) already have begun to speak past each other. Communication breaks down when our frames of reference are so wildly different.

Which Quadrants Do We Hope Have Faded Away…When We Look Back 200 Years from Now?

I asked the group to consider the following three scenarios:

  1. The one that actually appears to be happening. Quadrants I (“Best of Religion”) and III (“Selfish Assholes”) may fade away over the next 100 years or so, leaving an increasingly polarized world, in which a largely well-intentioned, but fragmented, secular world faces a fierce and weaponized supernaturalist threat.
  2. The atheist’s dream. The entire SUPERNATURAL (that is, the entire top, I “Best of Religion” and II “Shit Ideologies”) of the chart gradually disappears. So the world still has plenty of people dedicated to their own self-interest (even disproportionately at the expense of others), but they no longer justify it by way of out-dated and silly supernatural claims. And then there are many in the world who do good without god. In other words, quadrants III (“Selfish Assholes”) and IV (“The Old New Way”) battle it out.
  3. A non-judgmental utopia. Or the entire POWER (that is, the entire left side) of the chart disappears. Amazingly, humanity continues to find ways to reduce violence and even hostility.  We end up with those who are supernaturally inclined doing wonderful things in the name of God (or gods, as the case may be), while those of us who have no truck with “gods” or “spirits” do wonderful things in our lives as well. Everybody’s happy, at least until the sun explodes.


The question I have regarding scenario #2, the atheist’s dream, I confessed, is whether our heroes just might end up less effective, without recourse to a supernatural entity! This is hard to admit, but it is a concern.

I sometimes do wonder whether MLK and Ghandi, for example, could have done what they did without supernatural commitments backing them up… Let me be clear: I do firmly believe that MLK and Ghandi — two unusually brave individuals with a very strong moral sense — would have and could have acted in a similar manner even in an entirely non-supernatual world. But would they and could they have been able to rally enough people to support them in their cause?

Do we need to invoke an Imaginary Friend to move the masses?

These are empirical questions, but I’m not sure how to answer them.


The question I have for those who would dream of scenario #3, the non-judgmental utopia — the rosy one where people are good both supernaturally and naturally — is: what keeps the supernaturalists from drifting leftward from LOVE to POWER?

For naturalists, at least, selfish assholes or not, you can always engage them in argument, with a basis in evidence and logic, reaffirming our shared interest in human experience. They might not care (see, e.g., Zarathustra, Donald Trump), but at least they have to acknowledge your point.

For supernaturalists, however, even if they mean well, an argument regarding their actions can always be short-circuited by reference to, say, “God’s will.”

ISIS, it must be pointed out, sees themselves as acting out of love; they would no doubt place themselves in quadrant I instead of II! And here is the core of the problem: the subjectivity of supernaturalist thinking is ineradicable, impervious to changing facts. This is damaging and dangerous in and of itself, quite separate from the content of the beliefs.

This realization is exactly what moved me, some 10 years ago, from my formerly passive, enabling position on religion (COEXIST!, as the license plate preaches; don’t be “Islamophobic,” as the current Facebook and Twitter thought police emphasize) to a more assertive atheism (that is, against theism, not against the people who follow it). We can’t even began to engage others in sensible moral dialogue when they still cling to supernatural certainties.

Look, I said, I would be fine with keeping the supernaturally-driven good of MLK and Ghandi and hell, Jesus himself, if it didn’t come at such a price — the enabling of supernatural justifications and habits of certainty. Think of the kids.

Critiquing the Chart

When my chart presentation ended, we spent some time talking over its flaws.

Steve pointed out that the chart implies a static situation, when in fact there are changes over time, and the different features interrelate.

Yann pointed out that it was obvious I haven’t done enough presentations in a business setting. The convention, he explained, is to have the positive part, whatever you are pitching, at the top. Whereas I had clustered all the naturalist loving people at the bottom. I acknowledged that he had a point but asked, “How can you put SUPERNATURALISM at the bottom and NATURALISM at the top? The associations all run the other way!” We’ll have to set our Old New Way graphic design team on this thorny problem.

Walden pushed back on my suggestion that, over time, the arts will move downwards towards NATURALISM. He mentioned how he discovered recently that a jazz musician he enjoys, Brad Mehldau, is religious. It gave him pause but doesn’t change his experience of the music. (Ken located an interesting link to Brad Mehldau’s own eloquent thoughts on art and religion here.)

I agreed that music, being so direct and emotional medium, doesn’t really reflect the supernatural or materialistic commitments of its players and composers. So maybe music is an exception.

It’s more in the realm of literature and visual art, I suggested, that we look for a more accurate thematic representation of the dilemmas and divisions and complicated experiences of our lives. It’s here that an author or painter’s creaky commitments to supernaturalism may, over time, give his or her work a dated quality.

More On the Question of Where We Will Be In 200 Years

Shari stated that she considers humans to be detached from their environment and their connections to other animals. If we could regain our sense of connection, she suggested, we could establish a perfectly harmonious and efficient existence in the world. Perhaps, then, we could end up with the entire left side of the chart fading away?

I scoffed at this, challenging her to describe any perfectly harmonious and efficient group. She clarified that she has experienced this at times, but in a fleeting way. She mentioned that she has been influenced by Zoroastrianism, as well as Ayurvedic practices, in this respect.

I persisted to say that I thought that she was making an unfounded assumption as to the human capacity for “transcendence.” If you really take in, again not just accept but take it in,  that we are products of evolution, animals with conflicting hormonal and neurochemical urges, systems that clash endlessly in our little bodies, than you pretty quickly find quaint the idea of achieving a pure state of harmony with anything.

Yes, Yann interjected, but it doesn’t have to be so pessimistic either. Yann mentioned in this regard that he was frustrated by Gray’s unrelenting gloom and doom — all this talk of the cyclical patterns of human history —  as he read parts of The Silence of Animals. In Yann’s view, there is no need to tip either way into optimism or pessimism.

Humans have a range of behavior traits, he acknowledged (gesturing along the whole of the x-axis on the chart). Some, sure, are selfish and assholic; some are generous, other-directed, “good.” Yet Yann argued that our unique symbol-making conscious minds make us, distinct from other animals, capable of seeing the benefits — and arranging for more and more of the benefits — of these “good” actions. Therefore, despite the obvious blunders we have made in the last century (e.g. burning fossil fuels and devastating the environment through industry and warfare), we can make adjustments going forward! In this way we might, just possibly, avoid ruining the planet for our children. (Although he conceded that we may not achieve this goal — basically it’s a 50%/50% chance in Yann’s mind — again neither optimistic or pessimistic).

I said that I didn’t see it that way. This “specialness,” which he attributes to our species (homo sapiens), is to my mind merely a fancy, self-serving label for what is familiar to us, in our patterns of behavior. Free will is, in my estimation, largely an illusion. Yes we believe that we are rationally adjusting to circumstances and tilting our behavior towards the “good,” achieving “progress,” etc. But I don’t think that is actually right in any meaningful sense. We are merely playing out our conflicting self-driven and group-driven moral impulses, just as other mammals do.

Only we do it with symbols and words that make us feel righteous about it.

As for the record of humanity, Shari suggested, it is pretty bleak so far! The preponderance of the evidence is that we are a ruining the world for many other species. We are in a period of mass extinction due to human action.

Yes, yes, Yann said, we have, no question, screwed it up for other species. But at least for our own species we have done well. Life spans have increased dramatically. Science has provided vaccines, antibiotics, etc.

For how long, though? some of us asked.

Do We Care More for Humans Than Other Species?

In this discussion, at one point, Yann stressed that he does not privilege humans over other species of animals.

I said that, even so, we still favor our own for sheer reasons of familiarity, don’t we? I explained that I personally feel more empathy for my fellow bipedal primates than I do for, say, cows.

Yann surprised many of us by saying, no, he cares just as much for cows. In fact, he is trying to discipline himself to be a vegetarian for this very reason (he has, touchingly, been influenced in this by his son Thibaud, who is so repulsed by cruelty to our fellow animals that he refuses to eat them).

“But you would under no circumstances eat a burger made of human flesh, right?” I challenged him. “In that case you don’t have to ‘try to discipline yourself’ because you have, naturally, at your disposal, more empathy for your particular fellow primate. Don’t you?”

“Nope,” said Yann. “I should care about cows just as much. And I believe that I could love them just as much.” (I made a note that we should read Peter Singer soon in this group. He takes exactly this maximalist position on our ethical obligations to animals of other species.)

Nietzsche’s Theory of the Last Man

Both Walden and Kristen mentioned, at different points in the discussion, that the agendas of different people will always be different. They may overlap, but they will not coincide exactly.

I wondered if, for those of us who happily position ourselves in the “Old New Way,” quadrant IV, on the chart, this diversity of viewpoints, this fragmentation of world views, will always lead us to be somewhat… dissolute.

Can we no longer dream bold dreams and hold the highest ideals?

Jerry mentioned that he missed the sense of moral clarity and idealism that he experienced in the 1960s and 70s. This was one reason to participate in this reading group — to try to rediscover that experience of shared purpose.

I lamented that people used to have an assumption of ultimate meaning, lurking out there somewhere, and as this concept has faded so too has the fervor behind many of the moral causes in the world. Don worried that conservatives, more attune to supernatural and ideological unity, continue to out-strategize the progressive community. They still have a fervor and unity that we lack. Shari countered that such ideologies will always collapse of their own harshness in time.

I brought up Nietzsche’s notion of the “Last Man” in this context.

Zarathustra laments that, with the death of God, humanity will end up trivialized, seeking entertainment and distraction, making no bold commitments, favoring safety and security over risk and acheivement.

No one will want to be ruled or rule.

Warning of this, Zarathustra expects the people to rise up and hail the alternative he offers them: the übermensch! The creative, active, power-hungry man who transcends his animality and his humanity! Quite incisively though, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has the crowd reject the übersmench in favor of the Last Man.

I proposed to the group that we are, in effect, Nietzsche’s Last Men… and Women. (Let’s open it up to both genders, why don’t we.)

Our aims are small. Our meanings highly individualized. We listen to Adele or Vivaldi or Mingus on our iPod while shopping for the right rosemary-infused ham for a picnic in a carefully maintained public park. So what?

The Call of the Wild

From this we got into a discussion of how far we really can commune with nature.

If our “Old New Way” moral outlook is really grounded in NATURALISM, as the chart would suggest, then how does this work exactly?

I mentioned a walk recently, on Setenay’s birthday, during which a bunch of us chatted the whole time and only minimally touched the furry bark of the trees we passed or the soft undersides of the leaves. But even if we had stopped to hug them and sniff the bark, trace the leaves with our fingers, would that have really provided us with some deeper moral and existential awareness?

Ken mentioned that he does have this sort of transformative experience when he goes camping by himself for an extended period in nature.

Is this enough, though, this altered state Ken achieves for a brief time? Can it compete with the ecstasies unleashed by speaking in tongues in a Pentecostal church, or embarking on a Shaministic journey with spirit-guides?

I held up a naturalist guide, A Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, that I had read recently. I had amused myself, I told the group, when I began reading it, choosing to approach it quite self-consciously as a kind of alternative Bible for someone committed to a naturalistic outlook like myself. Yet in the end, despite the elegant writing about grebes and Tule elk and geological time pushing the rocky Pt. Reyes peninsula northward along the fault line, I was left feeling… fairly the same.

Where is the place for the intense, transformative experience in our Old New Way outlook? Where is the ecstasy?

I mentioned that in the last meeting I had been desperate to have some affirmation that at least we might prioritize “love” above all other values, even without a supernatural directive. If an imaginary Jesus can do it in the New Testament, can’t we?

Don’t we have enough evidence from the experience of love in our own lives to say that it is way forward? I had made the argument that someone like Larry Ellison or Pablo Picasso would benefit from adding a little more love to their lives, even at the expense of other values such as self-expression or the pursuit of achievement. But the group, to my shock, rejected this notion.

They argued for a whole smorgasbord, if you will, of values, and not prioritizing “love” over the others. (See the notes from the meeting on Love to revisit this debate in more detail.)

This gets to the “Last Man” problem that Nietzsche and his Zarathustra lamented, does it not? Is there nothing we stand for anymore?

The First Time I Ever Bested Yann in an Argument 

The discussion wound down to general feeling of good will.

Walden provoked me again with his talk of stopping at the negative direction of “Don’t be an asshole.” Isn’t that enough of a moral directive in our lives, he asked? But we will leave that to the last meeting (Walden, feel free to clarify with a comment, either there or here.)

A few of us stood around for a bit, chatting.

And that’s when one more funny thing happened.

Towards the end of the meeting I thought of the perfect rejoinder to Yann’s insistence that he does not value humans, as members of his own species, any more than he does all the other species on this planet.

“So, Yann,” I asked, my eyes gleaming, “Would you have been just as happy to have two calves instead of your two boys?”

He looked at me, uncomprehending. “Calves?”

“Two calves, Yann. In custom-fit pajamas, big, round, watery eyes, looking up at you from the crib. Would that be just as good as having two small boys?”

“Sure,” Yann said — but I must say, without conviction. “That would be fine.”

“Wouldn’t it get a little hard when all they ever said to you was, ‘Mooooooo’?”

I think I got him there.

Primates that we are, there’s something about other primates like us that just means more.

But he resisted to the end, valiantly.

“Tom,” he said, his arm gesturing in front of him, “We could love a piece of glass as much as a human, if we spent a long time caring for it!”

“I think André or Thibaud would beat a piece of glass,” I offered, not unreasonably.

And that was when, possibly for the first time in our long friendship, I saw Yann concede a point.

“Well, Andre and Thibaud are very special boys…” he trailed off.

His eyes grew soft as he thought of his boys, and I dare say he glowed a little. He glowed with a warmth that a piece of glass — I don’t care if it is green, sculpted sea-glass — could never provoke in him.

Next month we will read the newly published Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. So we will get closer to this question of our difference from, and similarity to, animals.

Looking forward to it.

Reading for the Eighth Meeting — ON BEING ANIMALS


For the meeting on Monday, December 14, 2015, we will read Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.

In this book, Safina focuses in particular on the day-to-day experiences of elephants, wolves and killer whales, three species which — who — have highly developed social lives, as do humans.

By doing so, he draws our attention to the practice of considering animals as subjects instead of objects; in other words, to step outside of our human-centered worldview, established by thousands of years of habit. He urges us to see ourselves as merely one possible subjectivity among many.

If we learn to relate to these and other animals with the term “who” rather than “what,” how will that change us?

Certainly vegetarianism arises as a pertinent question, but there’s more than that, isn’t there? Does this shift in worldview change our self-understanding in a significant way? Are there notable effects on how we live our lives?

If I know that we are merely one of many species who feel and recognize joy, heartbreak, jealousy, loyalty, even stress… If I finally accept that my ability to describe such experiences with spoken or written words does not set me apart as much as I assumed, what then? Will this awareness flatten experience or heighten it? Will I act more primate, or less? (Or can we change that at all?)

Enjoy the reading. See you at the meeting.