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Value cultivation in a world without magic

September 19, 2009

My atheist realization originally didn’t come as any shocking revelation that trashed my faith. It wasn’t an about-face from what I had always felt. Rather, it was the culmination of what I had always felt. Quite simply, the whole of my life had never given me personally persuasive evidence to believe. So my realization was simply to realize that it naturally follows that without persuasive evidence, one doesn’t believe. And I don’t.

This hasn’t been problematic for me, since I tend to view most religions’ views of God as being too distant to be particularly applicable anyway. So, I don’t even get what the big deal is anyway. Belief or nonbelief in God seems so totally…irrelevant and inconsequential. I talk to many people about their belief but I can’t get a grasp on it. Even the “personal relationship with Jesus” view that many people tout seems distant. I find myself thinking: how can you have such an involved relationship with someone not materially manifest in the world? (Obviously, for them, Jesus is manifest in the world. This is a disconnect we just have to live through.)

I remarked on Kullervo’s blog that I could understand his concept of worshipping the Hellenic gods as being analogous to what happens when one falls in love. But now, I’m not so sure.

The falling in love analogy allows me to understand the measures of devotion that people are willing to go through — whatever their deity (or deities) is (are). Wouldn’t you do anything for someone you loved? So conceptually, that makes sense.

But beyond that, I’m lost. I must ask, “But what do you see in x god or y goddess?” because I don’t even see that he/she/it is even there. In life, I can question why two people are madly in love with each other…but I usually don’t have to question the existence of one of the people in the relationship.

Anyway, like I said, that isn’t problematic for me. It’s just too distant and foreign to consider.

On the other hand, I think that value cultivation is something relevant and consequential in life. So I’m all for that. I love the idea of improving myself (although I acknowledge that I improve myself on my terms — not on the terms of how others think I should).

But what I’ve come to grips with is that…much like I can’t be “persuaded” by theistic claims, I am also not persuaded by claims of value cultivation. The world just seems empty of magic all around (or at least, the magic that is here is the magic I’m already used to). As a Mormon, fasting was not an issue in terms of adherence. The issue was that fasting as a ritual never felt meaningful to me. Scripture study and prayer never felt meaningful. Mormon value cultivation rituals didn’t seem personally relevant.

OK, no problem, right? I knew Mormonism wasn’t the end of the world. So, I looked into other structured rituals in hopes of finding the fit.

I haven’t looked exhaustively into every tradition, but what little I’ve explored isn’t encouraging. One popular ritual is meditation. I have read plenty of blog entries extolling the benefits, while I trust that it works for them as they say, for me, it has no effectual luster. Similarly, my father’s a hypnotherapist and brings all these “magical” success stories, and while I can see how hypnosis could have something behind it, it lacks impact for me.

And so I have realized that, though I want to believe otherwise, I don’t have personally persuasive evidence to believe in formal, structured “magical” ways to cultivate values. Because wouldn’t it be magical — even it’s just your brain doing all the work — to be able to direct yourself through these attempts at mindfulness?

Does this mean I’m stagnating with respect to whatever values I have? I don’t think it means that. Rather, I find a much different reality to value cultivation than what I want to believe in. My progress doesn’t happen because of a will or something like that. Rather, it happens day-to-day, through interacting and understanding the internal and external consequences of the interactions.

Taking Ray’s blog post about spiritual growth (and of course, defining “spiritual” for my purposes), I find that while I want to agree with him that spiritual growth requires conscious effort and dedication (in the same way that it’s inspiring that one can develop a gym plan for physical muscular growth and consciously improve one’s body), and while I certainly DO agree that spiritual growth is not “painless,” I have to conclude that for myself that I do not grow through conscious focus. I don’t have any formal spiritual exercise plan. Rather, growth for me is an organic process from reacting to the events of each day. When I do something dumb, I feel the effects (perhaps I piss someone off, or I myself get pissed off, or I get stomped on intellectually, emotionally, or [hopefully not] physically). When I do something smart, I feel better effects.

I like the second half of this quotation from the Buddha:

Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.

But I must ask: what if the first part — prescribing meditation as bringing wisdom — is what is holding me back? Is this a kind of, “If you meet the Buddha on the street and he tells you a half lie, kill him” thing?


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  1. Andrew, a few quick, disconnected thoughts.

    1) On loving a God who isn’t there, you know what they say: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

    2) I think you’re on to something when you say, “The world just seems empty of magic all around (or at least, the magic that is here is the magic I’m already used to).” My kind of spirituality is the kind that constantly reminds us that the things we constantly take for granted– photosynthesis, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, sleeping, eating, loving, breathing– are all pretty damn miraculous when you really think about it. Thus everything becomes magical, and the kind of magic that the religions usually appeal to turns out to be sort of superfluous. Compared to light, spacetime, and quantum indeterminacy, bleeding statues are kind of underwhelming. What I can’t get over is that water falls from the sky. On a regular basis. That’s bloody brilliant.

    3) I’ve never been able to get much out of meditation. Sleep is so much more relaxing and productive, not to mention less boring. 🙂

  2. 1) yet, this phrase applies when we have a memorable time before the absence to look back to. Here, we don’t (especially not with the LDS “veil” idea.)

    2) The thing about this is…1) the natural world kind of magic is so…natural (so unfortunately, I *also* can’t take solace in finding the incredibility of nature to be “magical.” No, it’s nature!)…and 2) the natural universe has some pretty miraculous screwups too. Every so often I get on wikipedia and just start looking up diseases. Oh gosh, do you even UNDERSTAND how many ways our body can (and DO) go wrong? I bet when they first found asbestos, they thought they had a genius product! But it was a natural death trap. I bet Proctor and Gamble thought they had something with their super-duper absorbent Rely tampon [and think about that…a woman’s body naturally works like that? THANKS NATURE!] until they found out about Toxic Shock Syndrome.

    I’m uncertain on if we laid all the good things and all the bad things from the natural universe together if we would end up net positive. I try to protect my sanity by not trying too hard at calculating it.

    Really, what amazes me is how in spite of everything, humans progress past it. Terminal illness? Not forever, if science has enough time to crack at the problem! I have an 8gb microSD card. 8 GB THAT IS SMALLER THAN MY THUMBNAIL! But even THIS isn’t failproof. Because humans also cultivated VX and sarin gas. What a marvelous and terrible piece of handiwork!

    3) Agreed.

  3. 1) Ever hear of false memory syndrome? 🙂

    2) “Opposition in all things”, Andrew. (I jest, but only partly. I do think that even the harsh side of human existence has a kind of morbid beauty to it. Why else do we watch horror movies and “Ice Road Truckers” and “World’s Scariest Police Chases” and “World’s Deadliest Insects?” If nothing else, the sheer number of ways we could be snuffed out at any moment should leave us humbled and in awe. And you’re right that overcoming these obstacles through mass ingenuity is pretty impressive, too.)

  4. 1) include that in the list of natural screwups, eh? 😀

    2) I watch horror movies because I’m a sick, sick individual who likes violence and mayhem. Not quite to be humbled and in awe, or for beauty (however morbid).

  5. 1) Yes, yes, score one for the irrepressible atheist. 😛 But in all seriousness, I brought up FMS as a genuine explanation for how one can cultivate values in a world without magic. If you can induce memories of magic or the illusion of magic or the experience of magic, then in retrospect that’s almost as good as the real thing in terms of value cultivation.

    2) I actually hate most horror movies. Anything beyond the level of Resident Evil is just unpleasant. So maybe my problem is that I’m in denial about the darker side of life. 😉

    I guess what it comes down to for me is this: existence is just better if you can continually think of it as sort of magical and wondrous. So I do.

  6. Andrew

    Loved this post, it really is so close to how my thinking has evolved, when first leaving Mormonism I was conditioned to believe that I needed some sort of worship or community to maintain a certain level of spirituality or that I needed a once a week ceremony to tap into my spiritual side. Over time I realized for me it was coming daily as you put it.

    “Rather, it happens day-to-day, through interacting and understanding the internal and external consequences of the interactions”

    Recently I found a definition of spirituality that is consistent with the day to day to theory and best described it for me, I seem good at forming concepts and ideas in my mind but am challenged when it comes to putting those concepts into words.

    “Spirituality: We believe spirituality is a person’s ability to connect to a purpose greater than oneself. It allows one to understand and live principles of goodness. It also allows the mind and spirit control physical and emotional impulses. Spirituality is an essential component in the development of individual worth and moral reasoning.”

    For me once I was able to develop a moral compass based more on “consequences of interactions” with the above concept of spirituality any sort of deity worship just has no appeal to me. At this point it would just seem like I would be putting on a distorted lens to change how I perceived things so they would always fit into my already preconceived world view, makes life easier in a way.

    On the other hand now my growth and course in life isn’t always as easy and often requires forced self introspection that may or may not result in a change or adjustment of my current worldview or approach. For me the later gives my life a great inner peace and purpose without much drama.

  7. re Chris:

    It just seems that this is kinda dishonest. And then one your values you’re cultivating is a pervasive dishonesty about the way the world works. Then again, I guess you wouldn’t feel as if it were dishonesty if you really were affected.

    re coventryrm:

    With your definition, maybe I’m just not realizing how it works in my life…but the latter part sounds good (that is, the second through last sentences)…but the former part (the first sentence) makes me go “huh?”

    I simply may not have thought about it enough to realize what “greater purpose” I’m going for, unless that “greater purpose” is nothing more than care for fellow human beings (which again, sounds kinda like the “nature is magical” thing…well, nature isn’t really magical. It’s natural.)

  8. Andrew
    I think it is just natural, I am not big on magical thinking either, For me I just take the first part to mean there is more to growth and happiness than instant gratification or impulses and that my actions should have not just a positive impact on me but also on others and the environment around me as a whole, in my life that seems to be the nature of things and the two typically are harmonious with each other. I think it is just as simple as your statement

    “Rather, it happens day-to-day, through interacting and understanding the internal and external consequences of the interactions”

    I think the challenge for us is the introspection that is required in having the ability to accept responsibility for our actions in a healthy way but without self degradation to understand the changes we need to make for a better or more positive result in the future, when we have a set of imagined absolutes that religious or magical thinking gives us it is to easy to just chalk things up to fate or out of our control or understanding.

  9. I can agree with that.

  10. I read your post a couple times. Value cultivation, as you put it, is really intriguing. Is it possible that as humans, we value the things we do because of nature/instinct? As in, we naturally value that which will further the propogation of the species?

    As far as “mindfullness,” I was just introduced to that subject this week with my therapist. She presented conscious breathing as a means for exploring my feelings. I read the material she gave me, and I must admit it seemed a little hokey. I don’t really get it. But, I did like the idea that it takes concentration to really understand our feelings.

    So yesterday afternoon when I felt upset about something, I tried really hard to get to the base of what my feelings reflected about my core values. I didn’t really utilize conscious breathing, more like conscious thinking. Sometimes I did tell myself to stop and breathe, because it was actually quite painful, and difficult! Weird. But useful because then I was able to consider whether or not I wanted those values to remain as my values. Does that make sense? Blah blah blah….

  11. Simplysarah,

    I tend not to look so “evolutionarily,” so I do not necessarily believe that we naturally value what will lead to the propagation of the species, per se. However, I do believe that we value the things we do because of our nature. I think we value the things that improve our long-term standing.

    Let me think of an example where one is not met, but the other is. Well, let’s take homosexuality. In this case, the pursuit of a lasting, committed homosexual relationship doesn’t really directly “propagate the species,” but I think that a committed relationship with someone a person loves and is in love with does a lot more to improve their long-term standing.

    I think that it just so happens that things that improve long-term standing have a way in most cases of directly or indirectly propagating the species. So, even though one might say that a homosexual relationship (or even an infertile heterosexual relationship) doesn’t “propagate the species” directly, a committed relationship improves the people involved no matter what, which leads to increased joy, productivity, satisfaction etc.,

    I guess what I’m saying is that species propagation is perhaps a secondary goal, but it usually is present. Does that make any sense?

    Sometimes, I try things like conscious breathing and thinking…and even though I can MENTALLY figure out that I should be changing my feelings…I can’t quite shake it. For example, a relatively meaningless example: I went to Starbucks today…and I got a free drink! The problem was that they made it wrong.

    So, one of my values says: don’t complain about free stuff. But another one of my values is not to accept subpar work. Yet another value is not to sweat the small things (pick my battles). But then I have the final thought that pops up: “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.”

    I left the store without complaining, and even though I could THINK about it, I was still disappointed for a while after…even though I AGREED that I shouldn’t let myself be disappointed by something FREE.

    In this case, I think a good value to cultivate (and the one that I wasn’t really able to get by just thinking consciously) is not sweating the small things. Because really, for the few minutes or so that I was upset, I could have been thankful and gracious. I should have been thankful and gracious. I can’t say that would “propagate the species” or anything, but I can say that that would lead to long-term improvement for my attitude, health, etc.,

    Does that make any sense? Did I kinda address what you said?

  12. Regarding your thought process at starbucks — as my therapist would say, “You had a LOT of thoughts about that!” (grin).

    Your comments do make sense. If the evolutionary view holds true, that we value things because we value the success of our species, then I think we can take it another step further. The step that you took – we add that, as rational (or high-level thinking? I don’t know the scientific term?) beings, we actually differ from person to person in our perception of what will ultimately allow our species to prosper.

    For example, Hitler’s idea of promoting humanity is far different than your idea or mine. Well anyway, it’s all starting to get over my head a little now…on to the next subject, right!

  13. If you don’t believe in something, don’t believe in it. The more you try to force yourself into a wrong-sized hole, the more you’re going to be unhappy. If you’re gonna be a nihilist, then be a nihilist. If something about being a nihilist rubs you the wrong way, and you have a nagging sensation that there is meaning to existence despite your best nihilist arguments, then you’re not a nihilist, so stop being one.

  14. Kullervo,

    I don’t think that’s the case.

    It’s not nihilism.

    It’s that the rest of you disagree.

    It’s not that there’s something that rubs me wrong about the ordinariness of the world, of improvement, and so on.

    It’s that most others think differently.

    And I don’t necessarily want to think differently…I don’t want your life or that woman’s life…but I am baffled that we all are at such different perspectives. We are in the same world but we see such different things from it that, in a way, we are living in completely separate worlds!

    Does that make sense?

    It’s that I don’t get you (you specifically and you generically), and it baffles me how two people could be so different that we don’t get each other. I don’t want to be you, but I am perplexed as to why we are so different.

    What do you say about that?

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