Thursday, January 24, 2008

Deism and America's "Founding Fathers"

Is America really a "Christian Nation?" Rather than make any assumptions, it may be instructive to look at the faith of a number of America's "Founding Fathers." While conservative christians may expect to find only bible thumping evangelicals, our founding fathers were more diverse and intellectual. Many of them had a world view that accepts god but rejects religion. It is called Deism and you can read about it at

Basically, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen and other major figures of the time were very much influenced by a world view that focused on rational inquiry and rejected belief in revealed truths and miracles of the bible and other religious texts. They may have been nominally "Christian" to avoid accusations of being atheist, but religious dogma is not a significant feature of these founding fathers. It was explicitly left out of the American Constitution, Bill of Rights and entire governmental system.

Were these beliefs the reason for the separation of church and state? Deism was a world view that made it easy to accept all religions as equals with a right to co-exist but not dominate America by becoming "established" as state religions. It is universalist in nature and rejects the notion that there is any "one true way" to god.

Deism is part of the Genius of American Democracy. And yet, many Americans do not know about it. Many of us just assume that America was founded as a "Christian Nation." Just one more example of the ability of an obsessed contingent in an undiscerning majority to obscure history and human nature. The truth is there, but is hidden in plain view, where the majority can't see it. The minorities often see the truth, but until the majority takes responsibility for curbing zealots, the juggernaut continues on and minorities feel disrespected and vulnerable.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Public Health Implications of How We Define Human Nature

By Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.

We generally don't think about the public health implications of how we view humanity. Yet, if we view human nature as constantly struggling for survival in a dog-eat-dog world, we are encouraging those around us into exteme competition, and probable tolerance of war and violence. If we are seen primarily as consumers, in a "produce or die" world, then we focus on generating products, exploiting people, resulting in massive environmental crises. If we are viewed only as divinely moral beings, we embrace the extrme in religions and may neglect or distort practical health issues, focusing far too much attention on moralizing health issues related to sexuality, fertility and reproduction, as well as idealizing our religion as "the one true way" to live.

Through experience, we are thus learning that extreme beliefs in fundamentalist religions or economic and political ideologies serve to redefine human nature in a profound manner, and carry major implications for the public's health. Our pluralistic, free society seeks a compassionate balance so that war, extreme consumerism and intolerance might ultimately be relegated to history, and yet we live in a shrinking, complex world struggling to live sustainably and in peace.

Perhaps we need to spend more time and effort on developing a mindful definition of human nature that will help bring us together, rather than relying upon the myths of the past, whether those are carried by religious theologies, economic theories, political ideologies or even the scientific method. As Albert Einstein said, we can not solve our problems by thinking in the same ways that created them. So, let us step back from the intense debates of the past and consider the world we would like to inhabit, and how we can get there.

There is no better starting point than looking at a newborn child, born with no beliefs, ready to be programmed and nurtured, and vulnerable to all manner of disease, injury, emotional trauma and stress. When a human child is born, what do we know about the life they will have? What are their burdens and opportunities? Is their health simply a function of how injuries and diseases are expressed through contact with the world, mediated by their own genetic endowment? What about the role of family, culture, community and global sustainability?

Human babies face an immense program of training and discipline which seems to be growing and changing every year. What they are expected to learn varies greatly from culture to culture, from one economic and social class to another. In the United States and the "Western" world, children are programmed with an ever growing array and intensity of information. They emerge as a defenseless primate and are "enhanced" with a multitude of learning experiences and stimuli, both real and virtual (e.g., television, Internet). The goal is to produce productive adults, but we do not know the long term implications of this training period, nor precisely why many children fail to engage in the educational systems, or drop out at various stages.

We do not know whether we may be inculcating life-long emotional and social difficulties through our educational training expectations and experiences. By increasingly emphasizing economic success, what are we doing to our children and to our future? The greatest predictor of "success" in education is the wealth of one's parents. What about happiness? Is happiness simply a function of social and economic successes?

What about the cultural beliefs that are passed on to our children? Many children are taught to believe in one of numerous variations of "God." They are taught that humans have an infinite destiny, having been created by the Divine force. Many are taught that life is a battle between good and evil. If we are divinely created, then what are our obligations to other animals and to our planet in general? Stewardship is presented as a value, but our clearly "non-divine" popular cultures and personal motivations inevitably lead us to place human comfort and passions ahead of the needs of ecosystems or global sustainability. If we are not divinely created, and are merely another species inhabiting this planet, perhaps we would behave differently.

Human divinity, indeed, presents a host of public health challenges. First and foremost is overpopulation, which, itself, is draining the life out of our planet in many ways. Billions of humans use renewable and nonrenewable resources on this planet and generate unfathomable quantities of contamination and pollution, as well as the toxic and radioactive products and wastes from our industrial processes. Decreased populations would help reduce this growing pressure, but fertility cults continue to promote the opposite.

Overpopulation is endangering our planetary ecosystems, our global climate and threatening famine and warfare. Yet, some organizations in charge of our "moral" lives paint birth control and abortion as mortal sins? If this is what divinity means, perhaps we should find smarter gods if we want to survive as a species. Divinity means that killing animals by the billions is okay even if we don't need to eat them in order to be healthy, and even if it is a horribly inefficient way to produce food, a major factor in global warming and pollution.

Divinity must mean that elitism is okay. As long as we allow a few underprivileged people to attain wealth, then it is okay for the masses of people to constitute an underclass of hopelessness while we each discard more of the earth's materials than it would take to sustain thousands of people elsewhere.

Drugs and violence are severe problems, for those with success as well as those who do not find opportunity through our educational systems. In poverty, basic safety issues and lack of productive social structures fuel hopelessness and lawlessness. In wealth, an endless array of opportunities to get oneself into trouble are presented, and privilege can also lead to hopelessness and lawlessness. Are we asking too much of our children? Are we overstimilating them from birth? Are we behaving as if we are divine beings when we inculcate childhood fantasies of becoming sports stars, television, film and music celebrities or corporate CEO's?

"Underachievement" is a huge reality among the young adults of privilege in the "West." Many have formed adaptations to protect from the rampant "stressed for success" aspects of our culture. They have diminished expectations and their fantasies are of living independent, well-rounded lives, with modest jobs and living arrangements, raising children or not. But they hope to avoid the epidemics of stress-related diseases such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, digestive problems and chronic pain from musculoskeletal problems exacerbated by sedentary jobs and overcompensated workouts.

These young people tend to not favor organized religions. And they do not believe that humans are divine beings. They represent a new wave of hope for sustainability and for improved public health in the human species. Talk with them. They are in your family and your community. They may not be able to articulate their role in changing the face of the "West," but that is what they are doing. Whether the rest of our culture continues its bizarre obsession with wealth, and marginalizing those who don't make the "cut" of "success," it is important to know that there are other ways to live.

Global warming, terrorism, famine and war, will eventually provide the smelling salts to wake up our culture to the irresponsibility of what it has wrought. In the meantime, public health issues abound, and radical religious organizations appear to be protected and empowered as role models despite their institutional debaucheries of fundamentalism, magical thinking and cultism; the pedophilic culture of priesthood and the hypocritical extravagance and promiscuity of televangelism.

At some point, we will wake up, drop the fantasy of our divinity, and get to work at building a sustainable culture that respects all life and honors as success the simple living of a good life. From my own point of view, "We, and our world, are sacred, and that has nothing to do with whether we were created or dropped off on earth by a flying saucer or some other extra-terrestrial entity."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hope for an Environmentally Sustainable Future

Hope for an Environmentally Sustainable Future

By Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.

[Delivered at the World Future Society annual meeting in Minneapolis, July 30, 2007]

Everyone is talking about the weather, but it may be time to look more closely into why we are doing little more than complaining - particularly about pending disasters related to global climate change. We have been talking about paradigm shifts and systems thinking, but global crises are increasing each year. Is it politics? Is it economics? Is it religion? I believe that the problem rests largely with our own human culture, especially in America. Moving into a rational environmental paradigm will require a new awareness, a new story, of human nature, itself.

Systems thinking is a powerful tool for transformative thinking, but in the case of global environmental issues, it must also include as part of the "system" the collective human behaviors that have placed our global ecosystems in jeopardy. We can study global climate issues forever, but if we do not factor in the strange, dysfunctional behavior of the human primate species on this planet, we are not likely to develop effective solutions. We need to understand the sources of the obvious human resistance towards protecting our planet.

Humans are a species of primates. We are the dominant species on this planet, perhaps, but we are definitely part of the problem, along with the cows we breed, the poisons we spread, the fuels we feverishly burn and the frenetic pace of our caffeine fueled culture. We calculate the contribution of other species of animals and plants and other natural systems to global warming, but we seem to ignore the fact that we are a species of primates. Does this matter? Yes.

To date, most of our systems thinking about global warming places human beings outside of the natural systems we are looking at. This error inadvertently diverts our attention from the mess that we humans are making. Instead, we focus on measurements of chemical and temperature indicators of our pending disasters. In the meantime, our culture encourages us to behave as if the Earth is all about humans, so we sit on the sidelines and act as some sort of grand analyst or engineer, as a god-like creature charged with running this planet.

If we are aware and afraid, we seem to be paralyzed by that fear rather than motivated by it. There is an archetype or belief system at work, here, rather than science. It is likely an artifact of Cartesian thinking, holding that the world is a complex machine and it is man's mission to understand and control it. But it may be getting in the way of efforts to change human behavior to reduce the risks of catastrophic global climate deterioration.

What if humans are seen as just another species rather than being the center of creation? What if we are seen as more "primate" than "divine?" What if the world is not all about humans, but the task of humans, like all other species, is to find ways to get along with the natural order of things in order to survive and prosper in the long term?

Native peoples around the world have long commented on how the white/european people were crazed and out of touch with reality of the natural world around us. Over time, we have learned that there is much truth in that observation, but we have continued to use and abuse our planet with little regard for the consequences to future generations.

If humans were created by god to have dominion over the world, then the whole world is about the human race, or perhaps the humans who go to a certain type of church. If, instead, humans evolved from other species of primates, then we are simply another species, unique as we are, trying to adapt and survive. Thus, we would always temper our activities with a desire to avoid upsetting the delicate ecological balances around us so that we didn't inadvertently destroy our local, regional or global habitats.

But, here's the kicker. We are not just any old species of animals. Of all things, we are primates! We monkey around with everything and are always getting carried away with things. With all of our incredible intelligence, we spend much of our time watching tv, fantasizing about sex, surfing the internet, playing games, or working at "jobs" to earn money. Is this the divine species put here to keep the Earth in balance? Hardly.

As long as we see ourselves as divine beings of light, we will act as if the planet is here to serve us. In that case, our human nature will generally have us dazzled by short term gain and paying little attention to long term problems we may be creating, whether that is environmental degradation, global warming, rising sea levels or war. However, if we see ourselves as a species of primates, we may be better able to perceive our massive shortcomings as stewards of the Earth.

That awareness provides the key to synthesizing systemic checks and balances on our primate decision making. Does our concept of basic human "freedom" mean we are guaranteed the right to destroy human lives and cultures to have a cool view of the ocean - or interesting packaging for a new product - or food products that have a longer shelf-life - or a new telephone technology that is exciting and fun - or cosmetic surgery that makes us feel sexy? Do we have the right to play with matches at a petrol dump? Do we have the right to produce marginally useful products, with scarce resources, which contribute to global warming, disposal and remediation costs that are born by people who do not buy or produce those products - and by future generations who have had no say in that decision?

Right now, America is enticing the rest of the world along the irresponsible path to global environmental crises. At this time, it seems like we are "king of the hill," but the hill is built of ego, greed and selfishness rather than anything of enduring value. As long as we see ourselves as divine creations, perhaps we are entitled to all that the world can offer, thinking that god and/or science will somehow save us from our own excesses. But if, as almost everyone knows deep down, we are primates who evolved from other species of primates, then we become accountable for our excesses.

It is more fun to see ourselves as divine beings, and religious fundamentalists and "new agers" may want everyone to believe that we are. But, if we are simply a very clever species of primates, there will be a different day of reckoning. On that day, we will be faced by disasters of war, famine and economic collapse resulting in authoritarian governments - all precipitated by our own greed and arrogance, rather than any particular judgments about our religious beliefs. In that case, we'd better get going with the unpopular and difficult task of building a sustainable culture so that our scientific knowledge falls into a context of hope, action and competence, rather than guilt, shame and hand-wringing. If we won't do this for ourselves, let's do it for our grandchildren.