Where did life come from?

Natural selection explains how organisms that already exist evolve in response to changes in their environment. But Darwin’s theory is silent on how organisms came into being in the first place, which he considered a deep mystery. What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint.

If anything, the mystery has deepened over time. After all, if life began unaided under primordial conditions in a natural system containing zero knowledge, then it should be possible – it should be easy – to create life in a laboratory today. But determined attempts have failed. International fame, a likely Nobel Prize, and $1 million from the Gene Emergence Project await the researcher who makes life on a lab bench. Still, no one has come close.

Experiments have created some basic materials of life. Famously, in 1952 Harold Urey and Stanley Miller mixed the elements thought to exist in Earth’s primordial atmosphere, exposed them to electricity to simulate lightning, and found that amino acids self-assembled in the researchers’ test tubes. Amino acids are essential to life. But the ones in the 1952 experiment did not come to life. Building-block compounds have been shown to result from many natural processes; they even float in huge clouds in space. But no test has given any indication of how they begin to live – or how, in early tentative forms, they could have resisted being frozen or fried by Earth’s harsh prehistoric conditions.

Some researchers have backed the hypothesis that an unknown primordial “soup” of naturally occurring chemicals was able to self-organize and become animate through a natural mechanism that no longer exists. Some advance the “RNA first” idea, which holds that RNA formed and lived on its own before DNA – but that doesn’t explain where the RNA came from. Others suppose life began around hot deep-sea vents, where very high temperatures and pressures cause a chemical maelstrom. Still others have proposed that some as-yet-unknown natural law causes complexity – and that when this natural law is discovered, the origin of life will become imaginable.

Did God or some other higher being create life? Did it begin on another world, to be transported later to ours? Until such time as a wholly natural origin of life is found, these questions have power. We’re improbable, we’re here, and we have no idea why. Or how.

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Everything is God Given

I write a blog about money a few times a year because I think there is a lot of guilt, shame and confusion around money in the spiritual community.

There’s this idea that you can’t be spiritual and rich, or if you are – you have screwed people over to get there.

There’s this idea that you shouldn’t charge for God given talents like intuition or insights.

But – last time I checked, all talents are God given. The talent to play basketball, the talent to write, the talent to sing, the talent to act, or be a doctor – are all God given.

For the talents to be fully realized, we must practice and learn and apply a ton of hard work, but nonetheless the raw talent came pre-installed.

And yet, we seem to have some block around certain types of God given talent.

The idea that a rich person can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven is widely used to take vows of poverty, but what Jesus meant when He said that was if you WORSHIP money and make it your God, then you’ll never be happy.

But you can have a lot of money and still be focused on The Divine.

You can also not have a lot of money and be so focused on money that you forget your connection to the Divine.

Money, like everything else, is a symbol for energy. That is it.

And the more of it we have, the more we can help ourselves, those that we love and others.

There is nothing spiritual about playing a small money game.

I also don’t believe that when you are a healer or life coach you are charging for the teachings.

All the wisdom teachings are readily available for free on the internet. Anyone who has access to the internet has access to the wisdom of the ages.

When you charge for your services, what you are charging for is your time and the facilitation of the teachings.

Your time and your wisdom are very valuable.

I know people who went to college for years and years and have six figure debts that never learned the things spiritually.

What is that worth?

I believe it’s important to give away scholarships, free content and help those who need it so that personal growth isn’t just something for “the rich.” But I also believe that healers who don’t charge what they are worth are doing themselves a major disservice and as a result, a disservice to their clients.

The guilt and shame around charging money for healing services is a way for many practitioners to play small.

The greater your cup is full, the more you have to give away.

Are you playing small by hiding behind prices you know are too cheap?

Are you scared to step up and play a bigger game?

Are you running yourself ragged and capped at a certain income because you are afraid to raise your rates?

Are you triggered by the rates of other healers?

Don’t you think you are worth investing in? And also being paid well for the value that you add to the world?

What would your life look like if you cast those fears aside and actually did what you knew you had to?

I’m curious.

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How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God

Why are some people more religious than others? Answers to this question often focus on the role of culture or upbringing.  While these influences are important, new research suggests that whether we believe may also have to do with how much we rely on intuition versus analytical thinking. In 2011 Amitai Shenhav, David Rand and Joshua Greene of Harvard University published a paper showing that people who have a tendency to rely on their intuition are more likely to believe in God.  They also showed that encouraging people to think intuitively increased people’s belief in God. Building on these findings, in a recent paper published in Science, Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia found that encouraging people to think analytically reduced their tendency to believe in God. Together these findings suggest that belief may at least partly stem from our thinking styles.

Gervais and Norenzayan’s research is based on the idea that we possess two different ways of thinking that are distinct yet related. Understanding these two ways, which are often referred to as System 1 and System 2, may be important for understanding our tendency towards having religious faith. System 1 thinking relies on shortcuts and other rules-of-thumb while System 2 relies on analytic thinking and tends to be slower and require more effort. Solving logical and analytical problems may require that we override our System 1 thinking processes in order to engage System 2. Psychologists have developed a number of clever techniques that encourage us to do this. Using some of these techniques, Gervais and Norenzayan examined whether engaging System 2 leads people away from believing in God and religion.

For example, they had participants view images of artwork that are associated with reflective thinking (Rodin’s The Thinker) or more neutral images (Discobulus of Myron). Participants who viewed The Thinker reported weaker religious beliefs on a subsequent survey. However, Gervais and Norenzayan wondered if showing people artwork might have made the connection between thinking and religion too obvious. In their next two studies, they created a task that more subtly primed analytic thinking. Participants received sets of five randomly arranged words (e.g. “high winds the flies plane”) and were asked to drop one word and rearrange the others in order to create a more meaningful sentence (e.g. “the plane flies high”). Some of their participants were given scrambled sentences containing words associated with analytic thinking (e.g. “analyze,” “reason”) and other participants were given sentences that featured neutral words (e.g. “hammer,” “shoes”). After unscrambling the sentences, participants filled out a survey about their religious beliefs. In both studies, this subtle reminder of analytic thinking caused participants to express less belief in God and religion. The researchers found no relationship between participants’ prior religious beliefs and their performance in the study. Analytic thinking reduced religious belief regardless of how religious people were to begin with.

In a final study, Gervais and Norenzayan used an even more subtle way of activating analytic thinking: by having participants fill out a survey measuring their religious beliefs that was printed in either clear font or font that was difficult to read. Prior research has shown that difficult-to-read font promotes analytic thinking by forcing participants to slow down and think more carefully about the meaning of what they are reading. The researchers found that participants who filled out a survey that was printed in unclear font expressed less belief as compared to those who filled out the same survey in the clear font.

These studies demonstrate yet another way in which our thinking tendencies, many of which may be innate, have contributed to religious faith. It may also help explain why the vast majority of Americans tend to believe in God. Since System 2 thinking requires a lot of effort, the majority of us tend to rely on our System 1 thinking processes when possible. Evidence suggests that the majority of us are more prone to believing than being skeptical. According to a 2005 poll by Gallup, 3 out of every 4 Americans hold at least one belief in the paranormal. The most popular of these beliefs are extrasensory perception (ESP), haunted houses, and ghosts. In addition, the results help explain why some of us are more prone to believe that others. Previous research has found that people differ in their tendency to see intentionsand causes in the world. These differences in thinking styles could help explain why some of us are more likely to become believers.

Why and how might analytic thinking reduce religious belief? Although more research is needed to answer this question, Gervais and Norenzayan speculate on a few possibilities. For example, analytic thinking may inhibit our natural intuition to believe in supernatural agents that influence the world. Alternatively, analytic thinking may simply cause us to override our intuition to believe and pay less attention to it. It’s important to note that across studies, participants ranged widely in their religious affiliation, gender, and race. None of these variables were found to significantly relate to people’s behavior in the studies.

Gervais and Norenzayan point out that analytic thinking is just one reason out of many why people may or may not hold religious beliefs. In addition, these findings do not say anything about the inherent value or truth of religious beliefs—they simply speak to the psychology of when and why we are prone to believe. Most importantly, they provide evidence that rather than being static, our beliefs can change drastically from situation to situation, without us knowing exactly why.

Linking UP Above

A magazine I picked up recently had the following title on its cover page: “Towards a Spirituality rooted in Religion”. I said to myself: “Shouldn’t it be the other way round?” The word ‘religion’ itself derives from the Latin religare meaning “to bind” or to link. It signifies the outward manifestation of an inner attitude, the expression of our being “linked” to the divine which we have experienced deep at the centre of our being.

Rituals, it would seem are an indispensable part of religion and are often identified with it. They serve a useful purpose as a pedagogical tool, and are meant precisely to keep alive the initial experience from which they emerged. Experience precedes the ritual. Ritual however has no meaning once it is separated from experience.

Our spiritual experiences grow deeper in proportion to our experience of being loved and being able to love in return. The progressive and in the end complete loss of self in the act of Self-giving enables us to connect with the divine for whom the whole of creation is just the outpouring of the Divine self. Truly, in God “we live, move and have our being”. In love there is no room for fear. One of the characteristics of a genuine spiritual experience is therefore the absence of fear.

The experience of fear is so necessary for ‘self-preservation’. At the physical level it enables us to ward off dangers and minimise threats to life. Yet, we often continue to experience fear long after the threat has disappeared and sometimes even when there is no threat at all. When this happens there has been a subtle shift in the origin of our fear. It is the ego that is struggling to preserve itself. At the physiological level it manifests itself in stress. It is not surprising, therefore, that meditation techniques are prescribed as the antidote to stress. Stress abhors unpredictability and it is so easy for one to use the ‘predictable’ ritual to soothe the pain of the wounded ego. But the ego is not easily deceived. At this point religion parts ways with spirituality. Religion degenerates into magic. A spirituality based on such a religion is nothing more than a caricature. Meditation on the other hand as the art of learning to “pay attention”, becomes the link between the ritual and the spi-ritual.

In a New Testament scripture text that is familiar to most Christians, St Paul describes love, among other things, as ‘never quick to take offence’ and ‘keeping no score of wrongs’. Love gives one the freedom not to see another’s transgression as a personal offence. That knocks the stuffing out of the other’s aggression real or imagined. There is no room for fear because no threat has been perceived. One can then love in freedom. It is the practice of meditation that enables us to slowly begin progressively functioning not from our ‘ego’ but from our true Self. The true Self is God and God is love.

When religion is based on true spirituality, we are able to understand that differences need not cause divisions. Returning to our contemplative traditions and meditative practices is the surest way to eschew violence in the name of religion. It allows us to restore the original purpose of the ritual which is to enable us connect to the experience of God within. We need no security other than the awareness that we are in God and God is in us. Perfect love casts out all fear.

Christopher Mendonca