What Exactly Is Spiritually Challenged? (excerpted from my book the 12 Unthinkable Horrors of Human Existence)
Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.
My term spiritually challenged simply refers to someone without faith and treats it as if they are missing something – the “faith gene” or gene cluster that enables the faithful to believe in something unseen and unprovable. While technically not the same as atheist, agnostic or human secularist, this concept applies to all three. My hypothesis is that faith is an evolutionary response and a result of denying the Horrors for tens of thousands of years.
The faith gene also accommodates those who believe in numerology, tarot cards, The Secret™, and numerous other New Age remedies. To the spiritually challenged, all of these feel, well, just silly. Perhaps we have what I would call the “skeptical” cluster of genes or the “doubting Thomas” cluster or maybe even the “show me” cluster. There may be ten genes that interact and they’re “expressed” or not, depending on one’s childhood education or whether one is an alcoholic who has hit rock bottom. We are like the main character in Dan Brown’s book, Angels and Demons, who states:
“I am not blessed with the gift of faith.”
– Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons
Most atheists and agnostics don’t feel having faith is a gift. Christopher Hitchens, in his many debates, often asserted that even if God was real, he wanted no part of Him. Most non-believers don’t want faith even if it is free. You don’t have to buy into the spiritually challenged concept to appreciate this book. Whether you attend a Unitarian Universalist church, consider yourself a human secularist, or you’re one of the new atheists determined to eradicate religion worldwide, it does not matter. The 12 Horrors will apply equally and the solutions will help you prosper.
The idea of a “God gene” has been postulated by geneticist Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, in his book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes (2005). Part of his reasoning was that the underlying tendency toward spirituality is heritable and attributed to the gene VMAT2[i]which affects monoamine levels in the brain. He further posits, and I would agree, that spiritual individuals are “favored by natural selection because they are provided with an innate sense of optimism, the latter producing positive effects at either a physical or psychological level.”
Classical twin studies do show there is a heritable component to a “self-transcendence measure.”[ii] There are detractors, though, for a strictly genetic or deterministic explanation for faith and belief in God. For the purpose of this book, it does not matter whether lack of faith is a specific gene, a cluster of genes, or the interaction of genes and the environment; we’ll still call it spiritually challenged. Ultimately, faith may be more a meme than of genetic origin. A meme is a word coined by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). A meme is:
“an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”
Memes change and evolve over time just like genes. Success of a meme does not depend on whether it’s true or not, just on its ability to replicate. The more “adapted” and popular the idea, the more likely it is to spread. Examples of memes would be:
- Life is fair.
- UFOs are real.
- Extrasensory Perception, i.e., reading minds.
- A “soul mate.”
- Talking to the dead.
- Crime does not pay.
- The immortality of the soul.
- Heaven and hell.
- Good and evil.
- God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent.
- There is one, true God and all others are false.
“The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”
– Delos B. McKown
Many of the Unthinkable Horrors are “unthinkable” because of memes with origins as old as our species. People reject the Horrors based on superstition and mythology passed down from generation to generation as the truth. Most of the memes fall into the category of “wishful thinking,” seeing the world as we would like it to be, and inaccurate causality (an example is when someone sacrifices a goat and then it rains, or you pray for lunch money and then find $20 on the sidewalk).
While this book has a provocative title, it is not meant to be confrontational; it is a statement of self-evident truths accepted by those who favor reason over faith. If you have never thought of these concepts before in this particular context, the 12 Horrors could be quite unsettling. More than that, they could shake the very core of your religious faith, your interaction with family and friends, your livelihood, and ultimately, your purpose in life.
Note that lack of faith is not a religion any more than not collecting stamps is a hobby. Here we’re focused on taking care of “our own” – those who accept their lack of faith. I would also include the many “pick and choose” Christians who acknowledge they don’t really believe all the dogma of their official religion and are curious about a very different approach to the debate on faith. After all, you’re already cherry-picking the phrases you agree with from the Bible and disregarding the rest.
Some may simply think of the spiritually challenged as kinder, gentler atheists. That may well be. I applaud Richard Dawkins and the Atheist Experience Public Access television show for encouraging atheists to “come out of the closet.” Unfortunately, in some occupations and some areas of the United States, stating you’re an atheist can be detrimental to your well-being. Lately, most of the atheist/agnostic/human secular conventions have been using terms like “freethought,” “freethinkers” or “rationalists.” Either way, the common thread is we all share a lack of faith in superstition, the supernatural, and religion.