Beyond the Flying Spaghetti Monster; finding a meta-ethic to save the human species

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Bill McConochie, Psychology PhD and author of Party Time! How you can create common good democracy right now.

A recent article in the Atlantic magazine (Nov. 2016, p.23) presents a brief review of a spoof religion based on a deity in the form of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”. This deity was presented first in response to legislation in Kansas in 2005. The Board of Education, arguing that one could not prove that intelligent design of the universe by the Christian God was not true, voted to let public schools teach the religious Biblical creationist theory of “intelligent design” alongside Darwinian evolution. A 24-year-old with a physics degree pointed out that neither could one prove that the universe was not created by a flying spaghetti monster, so why not teach that theory too? The Board reversed its decision.

This then evolved into a spoof religion that caught on, especially in Europe, with Friday as the holy day and colanders as religious headgear and pasta and beer replacing bread and wine in communion ceremonies. Marriages by leaders of this faith have even been approved by local governments in some European nations. This organization is referred to as FSM (Flying Spaghetti Monster) or “Pastafarianism”, presumably after “Rastafarianism”, a black Jamaican religious cult whose members worshipped Haile Selassie. While a spoof in some respects, the followers point out that nothing is inherently sacred and that sacredness is simply whatever a group of people choose to deem sacred.

Religion has traditionally been defined as involving beliefs held in common by a group of people centering on belief in a powerful supernatural being that can be used to answer or explain difficult-to-explain questions and issues. Perhaps because of the growing power of science to answer questions and explain complex issues in convincing ways, or perhaps for other reasons, church attendance and, implicitly, confidence in traditional religions, has been on the wane for decades in Europe and the United States.

Theologian John Shelby Spong has challenged Christians, in order to revive their faith, to redefine God in non-theistic terms, not as a human-like being but as, in effect, an abstract concept or concepts around which to focus one’s life. He offers definitions of God in various ways, for example as the ultimate source of life and love and as “the reality underlying everything else that exists.”

In my original research in political psychology over the past 15 years I have learned that religious beliefs are intimately intertwined with political attitudes, and that they almost certainly evolved in the human species to serve two survival functions. Society cannot function well without one or the other of these two forms of religion, which tend to surface alternately depending on the level of threat to a community.

These two types of religious belief can be studied scientifically and are defined by the questionnaire statements that make up reliable and valid measures of them. One type has been studied for decades by other researchers and is termed “fundamentalism”. The other has also been hinted at by researchers who have described it in various ways. I found this other type in my statistical studies of belief clusters and labeled this cluster as “kindly religious beliefs”. Fundamentalism is endorsed by as few as 6 percent of adults, while Kindly Religious Beliefs is endorsed by closer to 90 percent. Fundamentalism is associated with authoritarianism, endorsement of warmongering and political conservatism. Kindly religious beliefs are associated with the Golden Rule, forgiveness, endorsing human rights and with liberalism.

Research also suggests that religion evolved with the human species because it served important functions, either to provide courage, determination and self-sacrifice in war when survival was threatened, or to promote cooperative, reassuring activity within the in-group and with out-groups in times of low threat.

There is reason to believe that these two religion modes will continue to be manifested in human behavior in decades to come for several reasons. One is that humanity is under increasing threat. Population is growing relentlessly, having tripled in the last 77 years. This puts increasing pressure on humans to provide food, shelter, clothing, etc. and thus increases competition and war.

A second reason is that eroding human intelligence will in turn erode human capacity to mentally solve problems related to survival, such as stemming population increases and handling conflicts. My international research between 2006 and 2015 in human intelligence shows that I.Q. appears to be waning. This conclusion is based on comparing the scores for 163,000 children with scores for an earlier sample of 113,000 children. The rate of drop is .81 I.Q. points per year. While this may not seem like much, in only 37 years the average I.Q. score for humans could drop from 100 to 70, which is the top of the mental retardation range. At that point, human society could no longer function as we know it. Half the population would be virtually unemployable and few would be intelligent enough to graduate from a challenging college or university program or run a complex business, government or research organization. A review of other scientists’ studies, including ones by the World Health Organization (of the United Nations), strongly supports my hunch that this drop has been caused by toxins in air, air pollution.

Another reason that religions are likely to continue is that most humans seem to be addicted to counterproductive habits, trading current pleasures for long-term securities. Thus, for example, we overeat, continue to use fossil fuels for energy production, continue to use cars and trucks and planes without hesitation, though they all use fossil fuel, and we avoid physical exercise. We engage in highly destructive financial schemes leading to periodic catastrophic financial meltdowns. We engage in highly destructive, prolonged and expensive wars with little benefit. We persist in forms of politics that are controlled by small, powerful, wealthy special interest groups that indulge their selfish interests at the rather blatant expense of the common good. Finally, we persist in ignoring warnings by scientists that overpopulation and pollution of the environment present extreme threats to the livability of the planet. As a result of these self-indulgent but ultimately destructive behaviors, our problems will steadily increase.

There will be increasing pressure on humans both as individuals and as groups to find rationales for continuing their behaviors, either competing and fighting for what they want (justified by fundamentalist religious beliefs) or cooperating, compromising, sacrificing, loving and sharing (consonant with kindly religious beliefs) to constrain their destructive habits and learn to live in sustainable ways that will be necessary for our species to survive long-term.

It is a tall order to change the course we’re on, but perhaps we can. Perhaps we can find a way to quickly and powerfully unite the majority of citizens worldwide. Given the waning of traditional religions, it may be necessary to build a new, more appealing, form of religious thinking and behavior. The key component to Kindly Religious Beliefs thinking is having a constructive and appealing social ethic that unites large groups of people in robust, positive, cooperative behavior at all levels of society, from family to town, to county, state, nation and world. To create a religion, we must find something to hold sacred.

Perhaps we can inspire the majority of citizens of the world with a centralizing, uniting ethic grounded in the core belief that the human species is sacred. Then perhaps we can unite in dramatic efforts to quickly stop all forms of air pollution and to address all the other problems related to creating sustainable communities. This will be a huge task, but if our survival as a species depends on it, we must accept it and do whatever is necessary. This task may require a rationale of great power, similar to the power of a major world religion.

Because it may be very difficult for human groups to give up traditional forms of religion, perhaps this new universal ethic will have to be “packaged” as a supplement to, rather than as a replacement for, other traditional religions. It may also be necessary in forming this ethical code to base it on contributions from all interested parties in all nations and of all traditional religions and even of non-religions. This would help assure buy-in of the finished product.

Specifically, the challenge is to quickly develop a universal ethical code, perhaps best thought of as a meta-religion or meta-ethic, with the following qualities:

  1. Endorsing the concept of the human species as sacred.
  2. Eliminating environmental pollutants,
  3. Strongly supporting fair and effective population control policies,
  4. Incorporating carefully designed plans for sustainable communities of all sorts, tailored to rural and urban settings, and to varied ethnic groups and cultural traditions,
  5. Attenting to the basic needs of all humans, such as reflected in the principles delineated in various world charters, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations,
  6. Promoting what may be termed “common good democratic governments” to protect against the selfish and destructive influence of other forms of government.
  7. Emphasizing cooperation and kindness over competition, selfishness and aggression.

This code could, theoretically, and perhaps must to be effective, take on the power of a religion, to the extent that it must appeal to the majority of humans everywhere on the planet. It must be trusted, respected and adhered to very faithfully under the belief that the very survival of the species depends on it. It must be appreciated as a successful, dependable formula for success, both short-term and long-term for those who adhere to it. It must be a code that humans everywhere and of every religious disposition can accept as sacred.

In summary, if the human species is going to survive indefinitely, it is proposed that it must develop a common ethic with the power of a great religion. But it must be a meta-religion that holds as its ultimate goal the service of an abstract principle rather than service to a supernatural being. The abstract principle is that the human species is sacred. It is served by promoting the common good. This notion can blend with traditional religions; the common good is referred to by the Christian apostle Paul in his urging citizens to express their individual talents by serving all other humans (I Corinthians, 12, 7).

The common good can be operationally defined by creating reliable opinion polls of those goals and beliefs that citizens agree will be necessary to sustain the species indefinitely. An example of what such polling will yield is available in poll measures of kindly religious beliefs, human rights endorsement, balanced economics, common good government, and other such dimensions, available from the author. For an introduction, see his book: Party Time! How you can create common good democracy right now (Http://amzn.to/1vLcQ8B)

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