“People don’t care about knowledge and enlightenment. What they want is validation.”
–Heathcliff Weatherby, “Hallowstone“.
People in many religious communities are fond of “affirmations”: proverbs, wisdom teachings, “laws of magic”, and the like, usually in the form of only one or two sentences, which express a specific inspirational thought. “As above, so below.” “You are made in the image of God.” “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” You get the idea.
Religious and spiritual people often also discourage “negativity”: they discourage statements that assert that some belief or concept or expression is wrong. I get why people do this: they want to demonstrate open-mindedness, non-judgmentalism, and acceptance of differences of opinion and practice. But the practical effect of avoiding negativity is actually to produce more negativity: more frustration when the content of the affirmation does not match the reality, for instance. Also, it makes people angry at those who decline to validate their beliefs.
In order to help counter this needless stress, I suggest that some negation-statements may actually be helpful and good for us. And here’s the main reason why.
- In science, one aims to falsify a theory in order to clear the way for a better theory, one which better explains observable phenomena and which predicts experimental results more accurately.
- Similarly, in logic, it is often far easier to be certain that a proposition is false, than it is to be certain that a proposition is true. Therefore, all other things being equal, one assumes propositions to be false when there is enough reasonable doubt surrounding them, so that other propositions which are better supported by evidence and argumentation may take their place.
- By analogy, in religion and spirituality, one may wish to examine and dismiss affirmations which have been shown to lead people away from the path to redemption, salvation, moksha, nirvana, or whatever other state of peace and enlightenment the religion offers. Having rejected the affirmations that lead one astray, one may have an easier time finding and following affirmations that lead one ahead.
So here is my short and work-in-progress list of negations: that is, ideas concerning religion and spirituality which, in my own life and in the lives of others whom I trust, have been shown to cause frustration, cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, dispossession, irrationality, misery, and in general to lead people astray from whatever they’re seeking. I’m ordering them from the easiest to the hardest: that is, from the ones which I think most people would find acceptable and easy, to those which I think more people are attached to, and thus less willing to let go of.
1. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is eternal. Nothing is forever.
And isn’t this one obvious. Many things last a long time– some things, like our planet Earth, last billions of years. But even so, things are never “still”. They change. Life is change. You yourself are changing, as you read these words. You’re growing older. Some day you will die. Let us not be distracted by thoughts of afterlives and immortal souls– such things may or may not exist anyway. Looking at your present situation, in this very moment, the most unambiguously true statement we can make about what’s actually happening to you and the world around you is that all things must pass.
2. You do not deserve to suffer. You are not born sinful.
The reason I left the Catholic Church back when I was 16, and the reason I will almost certainly never go back to any kind of Christianity, is because of the Doctrine of Original Sin. In my rational judgment it is a principle of obvious misanthropy. Sure, I’m well aware of the evidence in its favour: lots of people do, in fact, treat each other horribly. Yet there is abundant counter-evidence, too. Lots of people treat each other lovingly. It is part of the function of religion to teach us something about the nature of human suffering, injustice, and evil, and what can be done about it. But the idea that we have misery and injustice in our lives because of a fault in human nature, for which reason we should be condemned to lives of privation and toil, is utter nonsense. Best to be done with it, and move on.
3. You do not know everything.
This one should also be obvious. Some spiritual and philosophical traditions, notably NeoPlatonism and its heirs, up to and including contemporary occult traditions, claim that there’s a part of our souls which already possesses all the knowledge of the universe. Learning, therefore, is really a matter of remembering. If you meditate, or pray, or invoke that knowledge by magic, or somesuch, then— nothing will happen. Because you don’t know everything. The universe is so vast, so huge, so varied in shape and form, that no matter how much you think you know, there will always be more to know. Other people will always be so different, so unique in their perspectives and experiences, that no matter how much you know, there will always be others who know something you don’t know. It’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to acknowledge that you do not know everything. Take it from Socrates, of whom the Oracle of Delphi said no one is wiser. (Or, take it from Hank Green, who is way more theatrical about it.)
4. The world, as presented to your eyes and ears and other senses, is not an illusion.
It can be fun to speculate about whether we’re all living in Plato’s Cave, or The Matrix, or some other elaborate illusion. There are some varieties of NeoPlatonism which teach that the world of the senses is a dream, and when we die we will wake up. Twenty-five years ago when I was learning about neopaganism for the first time, there was a popular idea that reality was consensual: things are what they are because enough people believe that’s what they are. Even brute physical realities like rocks and our own bodies. But someone who believes their physical surroundings are a dream would entirely fail to live. You’d expect to wake up at any moment. Or you would think you can magically manipulate reality just by imagining things differently. So you’d fail to appreciate the wonder, the beauty, the amazingness, of the real world: and you’d fail to live up to your basic responsibilities, even your absolute responsibility to yourself to live a good life.
5. You are not a machine.
You are not controlled by your nature, your emotions, your biology, or your fate or destiny. You are the author of your own decisions, in every moment. You might not choose your circumstances or your situation, including facts like whether you were born with a learning disability or whether you were born in a very poor family. Similarly, you might not choose how other people or various social and political forces affect you. But you choose how you feel about them. You choose what they mean to you. Most of all, you choose what you do about them. Think of Sartre’s and DeBeauvoir’s concept of “bad faith“: to claim that you don’t have a choice about something, even to utter the words “I have to do it, I don’t have a choice, do I?”, is to turn yourself into an object, a mere thing, a kind of machine; it is to deny the most important fact about yourself, which is that you are a person. Whatever that might mean. Don’t take that away from yourself.
6. You do not have a destiny.
Each of us is absolutely unique in the world: there will never be another person like you, ever again. From this obvious fact, it does not follow that any of us are particularly selected for anything. There are no forces at work in history or in the soul which, a priori, pick out one person or another for any kind of greatness. You are not “evolving”; and you are not a “chosen one”. Your spiritual books and teachers might be telling you that you have special knowledge or talents, or that you are an “old soul” or an “indigo child”, or that you are awakened, or ascended, or the reincarnation of an important historical character. You’re not. You’re the same as everyone else here on earth. Completely unique, completely irreplaceable, completely different from all others– but not necessarily special for that reason alone.
7. You do not have a soul mate.
Related to the previous point: there’s also no person on earth especially selected to be your lover, life partner, or husband or wife, or whatever. Yes, I’m well aware of how badly used the concept of “soul mate” can be. I’ve patiently sat through hours of explanations of how one’s soul mate need not be a sexual partner, but could be a business associate, a parent, or even a pet dog. Even admitting that broad redescription, the essential point of a soul mate is that there’s a person uniquely and even magically marked out as a perfect love for you. But there’s not. There are people out there who are well-matched and poorly-matched with you, for lots of different reasons and purposes. But there is a spectrum in between. And lots of people filling every place along that spectrum. And those people, like you, are not permanent, not eternal, not forever.
8. There is no such thing as “The Law of Attraction”.
Among the most popular New-Age spiritual teachings today is the “Law of Attraction”, an idea which, as near as I’m able to find, appears in Frazer’s The Golden Bough (where he says it’s mistaken anyway). Most recently it was popularized in Rhonda Byrne’s multimillion-selling book The Secret. This law teaches, among other things, that people who think “negative” thoughts (meaning: doubts, fears, guilty judgments, self-critical questions, and basic rational skepticism) will attract “negative” realities to themselves (meaning: bad luck, failure, defeat, poverty, disease, and even natural disasters). For example, Bob Proctor, a popular promoter of this way of thinking, claimed that people in poverty-ravished countries attract starvation to themselves by their thoughts. The fact of the matter is that the Law of Attraction is shit. It’s contemptuous of the poor and oppressed; it’s wrapped up in the observer-bias of the successful; it promises wealth and success that it cannot deliver; and it lies to you about who you are. Better to let it go. It may help give people confidence and may help shore up their willpower, but it buries you in an invisible prison.
9. The past had no Golden Ages. The future shall have no Utopias. There are no Promised Lands. We are not living in the End Times.
It may be obvious that there were times in the past that were “better”, according to some metric, than now. There might be again in the future. But to imagine that there are supernatural or spiritual forces at work leading us toward, or away from, “better” times, is to commit the logical error of observer bias. The same could be said of Hegelian-Marxist views which hold that economic forces are leading us toward one state of affairs or away from another. And this would be an obvious, non-controversial statement, if not for the way some leading American politicians do deeply believe we are living in the “end times”: and this is why they support going to war in the Middle East, for example. Or why they oppose the political effort to curb global warming. If we’re living in the End Times, we can just wait to let God clean up our messes for us. I’m here to say, no, we can’t. To paraphrase another spiritual teacher I admire, God will not save us from global warming. Or any of our other messes, either.
10. The worship of the gods is not what matters.
Regular readers of my blog have heard me say this before. Two years on, I’m still feeling the cold shoulder some of my once-close friends gave me after I published this argument. Nevertheless, this thought was among the most liberating ever to cross my mind: indeed it took me years to grasp its significance, and years to explore its implications. It has opened up to me a new way to be spiritual: one that is humanist, pantheist, rational, small-G gnostic, and philosophical. And, importantly, fruitfully ongoing.
Remember, for each of these negations, there may be more than one excellent alternative. None of these negations are involved in either-or dichotomies. The point is not to state that their opposite is necessarily true. The point is clear the illusions and falsehoods out of our way, so that we can look more earnestly and honestly for what more substantial truths there may be.
With thanks to V.C. for a conversation that sparked this course of thought in me.