Mash's Musings

Emergence of religious values

Published Apr. 21, 2021

Over the last few years, fueled in part by curiosity and in part by the search for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, I have tried implementing a variety of lifestyle changes. Most of these ideas have come from separate sources and some have stuck more than others (I swear I'll start working out everyday tomorrow). But taking a step back on some of the more impactful ones paints an eerily familiar picture:

  1. Rarely drink or do drugs. Inspired by my hatred of weekends spent recovering from hangovers and by examples set by two friends enjoying the same parties.
  2. Abstain from porn and masturbation. Inspired by that one TEDx Talk.
  3. Meditate first thing in the morning and often before bed. Inspired by Sam Harris.
  4. Rarely eat meat. Inspired by a course in air pollution engineering and a long-time partner.
  5. Read philosophy and religious texts. Inspired by desire to find the Answer and catch up on literary tradition.
  6. Rarely lie. Inspired by Sam Harris and a long-time partner. I would say I never lie but...
  7. Tithe. Inspired by a SEO savvy career quiz that led me to 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can.
  8. Reduce amount of "stuff". Inspired by anxiety around clutter and desire to save more.
  9. Intermittently fast. Inspired by David Sinclair's Lifespan.

The clear religious bent of this list would outdo many Muslims I know. Yet my belief in a traditional God is no stronger than it was before. In fact I'd wager that the intense angst and atheist identity formed in my teenage years probably made me more resistant to these ideas than most. But here we are. Like the final zoom out on Art Attack, it is surprising how a series of small unrelated steps looks from a big picture lens.

Does this mean the seemingly arbitrary rules handed down by religions are really some emergent properties that arise from one's search for truth and contentment? If so, does that justify the use of more persuasive tools such as fear and shame to keep others on the path?

While I leave you to ponder the former, I draw a hard line against the latter. It is easy, in hindsight, to preach about virtues, but applying pressure wantonly does more harm than good. For me, each of these habits came from the right conversation at the right time. And the only real teacher was lived experience.

More insidiously, packaging virtues with negative emotions can backfire in a spectacular way. Discovered individually and independently, virtues serve as a rock solid foundation for identity; but handed down from God, the slightest tremor can cause the house of cards to topple into crisis. Inoculation means bottom-up learning. And bottom-up learning means making your own mistakes.