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S1E10: Spiritual Warfare: Good vs. Evil

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Espiritualidad y Ciencia
Espiritualidad y Ciencia
S1E10: Spiritual Warfare: Good vs. Evil

Religions and some spiritual creeds share the view that there is a war between good and evil and that we are the battlefield. Politicians profit from this belief and frame the political struggle with the forces of good or evil depending on the point of view from which it is viewed.

What is the true origin of this struggle and what does it mean for each of us? I will present my vision based on Spirituality and Science.

There are three great subjects, present in all human cultures that equally raise passion, loyalty and fanaticism: Three themes that jointly have caused, at the same time, some of the greatest advances in society but also the most dire aberrations and backwardness: Religion, Politics and Sports.  The three topics that are said not to be discussed at the table.

What do these three subjects have in common that make them so powerful and polarizing? The answer is: almost everything. All three subjects leverage uniforms and symbols to attract their supporters, charismatic and articulant leaders who are often attributed supernatural powers, mass events where followers congregate to chant, deliver harangues and participate in ceremonies.

All three promote legendary rivalries with similar groups, usually originating in the same geographical area and we could go on finding parallels and similarities, but the most important thing that Religion, Politics and Sport have in common is that they all offer is the sense of transcendence that we talked about in the Episode on The Science of the Spirit. They provide that feeling of being part of something higher and greater than oneself.

This is no coincidence, in fact Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens says that politics is simply another form of religion where the god they worship is the idea of ​​a nation or some politic ideas, that equally demands loyalty, devotion, tithes and sometimes sacrifices, or war heroes, as they are refered to in politics.

However, there is an additional characteristic component in Religion, Politics and Sports that makes them so prone to violence: The need for an opponent, a contradictor. For these aspects of society to make sense, they must have an enemy who must be fought and destroyed but who ironically is needed so that one’s ideas can be contrasted.

From here on, I am no longer going to refer to sports, because sports, as well as arts and entertainment, are at best, controlled ways to release our human instinct for partisanship and confrontation. Knowing that the contest is friendly with rules accepted by both parties and the awareness that the rivalry is limited to the spaces in which the confrontations takes place makes venial in most cases. Well, there have been many cases where this awareness is diluted and the fans of some teams attack to each other to death, but let’s say that this is the exception, not the norm.

Religion and politics on the other hand, even though equally fictitious cultural systems created by mankind, most people consider them “real” and “serious” matters but worse yet, most people consider tjat the religion or political party of their choice is the one that holds the truth or the best moral values ​​and therefore, that the supporters of the other factions are wrong, or worse, that they are the representation of evil.

The fight of good vs. evil

Well this is the main point that I want to address today: religion and politics constantly tell us that their fight is against evil, because we are living a war between good and evil. Very often religions and politicians form alliances to defeat that invisible enemy and we see how presidents and dictators of all ideological colors invoke God, sometimes the Virgin Mary and other divine beings for their questionable crusades.

But what is evil and where does it come from? Like almost all the concepts we have covered so far, there is no universal consensus on what evil is. It could be said, in a general way, that evil is the absence of good. Although, that leads us to define good, which is just as ambiguous as evil. These concepts vary from culture to culture and from religion to religion; even from person to person. However, it is clear that both good and evil are part of a human behavior spectrum, in which the ends can be clearly identified by almost anyone, but in the middle, many nuances overlap in shades that some may considered good and others sin or evil.

I highlight this spectrum as exclusive to human beings because those same actions, when observed in other sentient or non-sentient beings, are not usually qualified in the same way. It is known that lions kill their own cubs as a strategy to gain their own herd, or pride, which is the name for a herd of lions. Zoologists explain this phenomenon as a valid resource from a natural selection point of view, but it is not common to hear that lions or their actions are evil.

Nor are earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. In fact, curiously many religions and cults consider these events the work of a kind god who punishes his disobedient creatures. Those same divinities are also attributed natural events that result favorable for the Human Being, such as a good harvest, an oddly good fisihng, the sprout of a water source, etc.

From the previous, everything that happens in nature: life and death is somehow “good” but attributable to divinity and all evil is eminently human, even if it is caused by the seduction of an evil spirit. Let’s see then what is good and what is evil:

At the very end of the good specturm, we can place “goodness”, which although very similar, is not the same as good. Godness would enclose everything that is indisputably positive, such as protecting life, defending the underdog, seeking justice, practicing fairness, kindness, humility, etc. At the other end, the evil end, we find pure evil or depravity that in an analogous way would be behaviors that are universally condemned as negative, such as killing for pleasure, cheating out of selfishness, stealing without need, abusing the less favored, causing unnecessary suffering, etc.

All of these things resonate with most of us, and I think there is no need to find arguments to explain why we classify them in this way. This is why popular cinema and literature have always represented their most famous heroes and villains with these characteristics: The unquestionable goodness of Superman against the unquestionable evil of Lex Luthor.

The problem is in the middle of the spectrum, in that gray area where actions that are neither good nor bad for everyone and where some see good and some evil, yet others may say it is neither. Well, this gray area is where most of the human experience happens. Fortunately, most of us will never feel an urge to kill, torture, injure, or destroy another human being, but neither will must of us have opportunities to show true heroism or to save lives.

On the other hand, yes, we have to decide every day if we criticize a neighbor or if we eat beef or tofu insted, or if we give in to laziness or eat one dessert too many. Anyway, in these small things is where we find ourselves facing the struggle against temptations, famously dramatized as the 7 deadly sins that Saint Thomas Aquinas compiled. It is likely that if I ask you what are the 10 commandments of Moses you will hit 5 or 6, but if instead I ask you you what are the capital sins, you will probably know them by heart, because they are much closer to our daily life: pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, envy and sloth.

Of course there are many cultures that don’t base theri moral on the list from Thomas Aquinas, but tipically they all censor the same behaviors. Buddhism for example only speaks specifically of greed and wrath but adds ignorance as part of the three poisons that are the root cause of karma. Islam is more general in the way it calls sin and speaks of sayyia, khatia: errors, itada, Junah, dhanb: immorality, haram: transgressions. Dhulam, fujur, su, fasad, Fisk, kufr: evil and depravity, shirk: belief in another God apart from Allah.

The conflict in all these cases is that the definitions of these sins are almost always so vague and ambiguous that there is also a whole spectrum of behaviors that fit into each category, which makes some things acceptable or even good for some people but the opposite for others. For example, is pride in oneself or self-love a form of pride? How far can I be ambitious in my projects without reaching greed? Does lust only exclude relationships between heterosexual spouses? What about the LGBTI community, masturbation or pornography? Would anger be so bad if with it we motivate ourselves to fight against injustice or abuse? What is gluttony? Eating without hunger or from what amount of food? Does “harmless” envy exist? and finally laziness: If I stay in bed all day on a Sunday or if I decide to postpone a task that I could do today until tomorrow, am I falling to this deadly sin?

Jews and Muslims have the “advantage” that their guide books specify in much more detail what is pious and what is sinful. With the disadvantage, on the other hand, that their guide books were written a couple of thousand years ago and therefore do not give many lights of what to do in the face of the Internet, Social Networks, multilateralism, globalization, space exploration, climate change, psychoactive drugs, etc. Apparently some Muslims perceive all of this mostly as sin and Jews mostly as divine gift, and this might be part of the reasons why there is such a great ideological gulf between the worldviews of the East, Middle East and West.

The spiritual warfare that each one of us wage on the personal terrain of human behavior has thus, for centuries, been transferred to battlefields in the outside world where the holy war, the crusades and more recently the war on drugs or the war against Terrorism always invoke the flags of good and the help of God to defeat the forces of evil.

And then, religion and politics meet again because religions tell their faithful: “You must cultivate faith and temperance so as not to fall into the temptation of committing these sins or your souls will be condemned”, but at the same time they tell politicians “You must not allow people to commit these sins, you must prohibit this or that, or else, people will do it without restraint and we will live hell on earth.” And if it pertains to the members of another religion, well, then they might as well be annihilated, just in case.

The lost Eden

Now,statistics show that only about 20% of the world’s population does NOT belong to an organized religion. The question then would be how did we manage to move more and more towards a secular world where religion no longer has as strong influence in most governments as it had just 50 years ago?

As it turns out, at the very heart of this conservative religious thinking, there has always existed a progressive, libertarian and humanist seed that has opposed to the government of society based on religious precepts. Conservatives vs. Libertarians … Sound familiar? Yes, Conservatives against Liberals.

In the biblical story, God “the ruler” put Adam and Eve in the center of the Garden of Eden and offered them all the benefits of the system: housing, food, security, health, clothing … Well, clothing did not give them, but he did set one condition for them to continue receiving their income and other benefits, they had to obey what was ordered and above all not to “taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge”, that is, not to think for themselves.

Then the serpent or “the adversary” shows up, and tells Adam and Eve that if they eat the forbidden fruit (that is, knowledge), then one day they will be able to become God-like, dominating the world, traveling into space, manipulating the world. DNA, etc.

We already know what happened next: Nietzsche declared God is dead and we are on our way to becoming Homo Deus, just like Noah Harari sentenced.

No matter what title or color they give it, or the number of political parties they want to set up, the entire spectrum of political idedas is always devided between these two trends: To the left the libertarians and to the right the religious.

Division imprinted in our brains

Gee, we even got immersed in laterality … Left and right, doesn’t that sound like something else that we have previously discussed? Well yes: left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain. But no, that’s as far as this goes, the definition of political left and right has nothing to do with the functions that were erroneously assigned to each hemisphere of the brain.In fact, left and right, humanism and religiosity, do have to do with the brain but in another way:

Human brain has evolved from the inside out and the deepest part, the brainstem handles vital functions such as breathing and heartbeat. Around this primitive brain, higher mental functions began to develop, starting with a small lump that remains in the upper part of the stem called the R complex. The R comes “reptile”, which is the class where this type of brain also been observed and with whom we share a common ancestor. This area of ​​the brain controls territoriality, aggressiveness, ritual, and hierarchy.

Around the R complex, nature developed the limbic system, that is our mammalian brain. There, very strong emotions arise such as childcare and other social behaviors that can be observed in all mammals. Finally, around the limbic system, primates developed our cerebral cortex: the place where consciousness, intuition, analysis, logic, language, art and science emerged [1] .

Finally, and trying not to extend too much the anatomy class, one of the areas that have more recently evolved in Homo Sapiens’ brain is the frontal lobe. This interesting area of ​​the brain handles very complex processes such as meta-thinking, which is the abstract thinking of things that only exist in our imagination, long-term planning, but what I want to focus on is these two: behavior self-control and empathy. I mean, this modern brain is what has allowed us to get out of the wild and build a civilization. The frontal lobe allows us to control the emotions that arise from the limbic system, temper them to avoid outbursts and impulses that go against our short, medium and long-term goals and also gives us the possibility of attributing emotional value to our fellow humans: feel pain for the pain of another person even if it is a stranger or rejoice with their signs of happiness [2] .

People who have frontal lobe lesions, or who have it atrophied in some way, have been found not to control their impulses and are prone to psychopathy or to engage in sexual behaviors in public without feeling shame.

The thing is that this modern, empathetic and self-controlling brain did not replace but rather coexists with the limbic system and the R complex. Therefore, human beings are animals that experience at the same time an enormous range or mental processes including cognition and social cooperation, aside from emotions and animal instincts, aggressiveness, ritualism, territoriality and respect for hierarchy just like reptiles do.

Eternal conflict

In other words, in our brain, this whole spectrum of forces that propel and contain us coexist, cooperate and sometimes conflict to each other. At the same time we respect authority, we react with violence if our territory is invaded, we protect our kids, we feel part of a herd, we feel the urge to procreate, hoard and enjoy pleasure but also the ability to control all the previous, respecting differences with our peers, joining them to achieve a common goal and selflessly help a stranger when the time comes.

One of the most common and erroneous ideas of those who are highly religious is that only fear of punishment or vehement prohibition can ensure that human beings do not become perverted, licentious, and decay into an animal state. Those prohibitionists consider that within us there are forces that push us to evil and only willpower together with human or divine law can repress those instincts and allow us to live a peaceful life.

Maybe that was the case for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. Perhaps our primate ancestors had to mark their territory and kill the offspring of anyone who challenged their authority to ensure a minimum of coexistence. But science and especially the experience of many human cultures have shown that it is possible for us to live together, in peace and collaborate in large groups without the yoke of fear.

But we cannot deny who we are and deep within each one of us, that reptilian instinct lives on and will continue to exist, challenging our libertarian and exploratory nature. That is the true nature of the battle between good and evil: we are afraid of ourselves. There is a part in our brain that tells us that if we do not respect authority, if we are not relentless with ourselves, we are going to descend into an abyss of evil. And there’s another part that invites us to explore the world, to trust our instincts, to discover and create even if for this we have to break structures and abolish rules.

That is why Kahlil Gibran said this in his wonderful book “The Prophet”:

And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?

If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with your own hand upon your own forehead.

You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.

And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?

The Prophet – Kalil Gibran

Spiritual warfare is feeling guilty every time we give in to our natural instincts: love, sex, sensuality, leisure and yes, sometimes also the desire for destruction and selfishness. All those emotions of our limbic system are between a rock and a hard place: the cerebral cortex needs these impulses to be able to discover, understand, create, but our R complex has to serve as a fence to maintain a social order, an efficient and safe social structure.

Expulsion from paradise

When we are children and our brain is forming we are free for the first and last time. Children up to a certain age laugh at the misfortune of other people and masturbate in public without any shame, but they also hug and laugh without limits, without worries; They go about carelessly naked as Adam and Eve did, but then when puberty arrives, they realize that they are naked, they discover that sex and death exist and they begin to feel the need to create their own story, to see the world and to discern good from evil.

Thus, they are little by little expelled from the Garden of Eden and have to start fending for themselves. They understand that Dad and Mom were not gods and that causes deep frustration, hence the rebellion against deception, rules and injustice. They need to change the system and that is why most young people are liberal, challenging, progressive.

Idealistic struggles come, they shake the foundations of society with their peace and love, student movements, springs of discontent and suddenly, already immersed in the daily life of making a living and bored with the disappointments and unfulfilled promises of their liberalism and debauchery, they begin to see the consequences of their mistakes and to understand and appreciate their old parents ever so slightly more.

The circle is completed when now older, those rebels from the past, discover that there is a new generation that wants to tear down everything that they built with so much effort and who knows, they might end up endangering the stability they have achieved for their children and so the former rebels now need to preserve as much as possible. That is why almost all old people are conservatives, even if they call themselves liberals because the liberals of the past are more like the conservatives than the liberals of today.

And so we have managed to move forward: two steps forward and one step backwards. We are finally beginning to understand that there are no human races but only one human race with various colors, that women have the same value and importance as men, that women have the right to decide about their body and that love between same-sex people is as important and significant as love between heterosexual couples; much in spite of the fact that almost all of these precepts are still contested by most of the big religions.

What will be the struggles of the future? Perhaps the right to choose how and when to die, polyamory, genetic engineering, human-machine relationships, respect for all forms of life.

Meanwhile, the question is: how do we deal with this war happening within each one of us? I have some ideas to share with you but that will have to be in another episode.

Good journey and nice breeze!


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