Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

St. Benedict by Fra Angelico, via Wikimedia Commons

We might imagine that life in a monastery is one of the safest, most predictable ways of life on offer, and therefore one of the least distracted. But “medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating,” writes Sam Haselby at Aeon, “and concentration was their lifelong work!” They complained of information overload, forgetfulness, lack of focus, and overstimulation. Their jumpy brains, fundamentally no different from those we use to navigate our smart phones, were the culprit, though, like us, the monks found other sources to blame.

“Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts.” Given the nature of their restrictive vows, it’s no wonder they found themselves thinking “about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God.” But the fact remains, as University of Georgia professor Jamie Kreiner says in an interview with PRI’s The World, monks living 1600 years ago found themselves constantly, painfully distracted.

It wasn’t even necessarily about tech at all. It was about something inherent in the mind. The difference between us and them is not that we are distracted and they aren’t, it’s that they actually had savvier ways of dealing with distraction. Ways of training their minds the way we might train our bodies.

So, what did the wisest monks advise, and what can we learn, hundreds of years later, from their wisdom? Quite a lot, and much of it applicable even to our online lives. Some of what medieval monks like the 5th century John Cassian advised may be too austere for modern tastes, even if we happen to live in a monastery. But many of their practices are the very same we now see prescribed as therapeutic exercises and good personal habits.

Cassian and his colleagues devised solutions that “depended on imaginary pictures” and “bizarre animations” in the mind,” Haselby explains. People were told to let their imaginations run riot with images of sex, violence, and monstrous beings. “Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualize the material they were processing,” often in some very graphic ways. The gore may not be fashionable in contemplative settings these days, but ancient methods of guided imagery and creative visualization certainly are.

So too are techniques like active listening and nonviolent communication, which share many similarities with St. Benedict’s first rule for his order: “Listen and incline the ear of your heart.” Benedict spoke to the mind’s tendency to leap from thought to thought, to prejudge and formulate rebuttals while another person speaks, to tune out. “Basically,” writes Fr. Michael Rennier, Benedict's form of listening "is taking time to hear in a certain way, with an attitude of openness, and commitment to devote your whole self to the process,” without doing anything else.

Benedict’s advice, Rennier writes, is “great… because obstacles are all around, so we need to be intentional about overcoming them.” We do not need to share the same intentions as St. Benedict, however, to take his advice to heart and stop treating listening as waiting to speak, rather than as a practice of making space for others and making space for silence. “Benedict knew the benefits of silence,” writes Alain de Botton’s School of Life, “He knew all about distraction,” too, “how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be.”

Silence allows us to not only hear others better, but to hear our deeper or higher selves, or the voice of God, or the universe, or whatever source of creative energy we tune into. Like their counterparts in the East, medieval Catholic monks also practiced daily meditation, including meditations on death, just one of several methods “Cistercian monks used to reshape their own mental states,” as Julia Bourke writes at Lapham’s Quarterly.

“A medieval Cistercian and a modern neuroscientist” would agree on at least one thing, Bourke argues: “the principle that certain feelings and emotions can be changed through meditative exercises.” No one devises numerous formal solutions to problems they do not have; although their physical circumstances could not have been more different from ours, medieval European monks seemed to suffer just as much as most of us do from distraction. In some part, their lives were experiments in learning to overcome it.

via Aeon

Related Content:

Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Concentration

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Wisdom of Ram Dass Is Now Online: Stream 150 of His Enlightened Spiritual Talks as Free Podcasts

Image by Barabeke, via Creative Commons

“Over the course of his life, it would appear that Ram Dass has led two vastly different lives,” writes Katie Serena in an All That’s Interesting profile of the man formerly known as Richard Alpert. By embodying two distinct, but equally influential, beings in one lifetime, he has also embodied the fusion, and division, of two significant cultural inheritances from the 60s: the psychedelic drug culture and the hippie syncretism of Eastern religion Christianity, Yoga, etc.

These strains did not always come together in the healthiest of ways. But Ram Dass is a unique individual. As Alpert, the Massachusetts-born Harvard psychology professor, he began controlled experiments with LSD at Harvard with Timothy Leary.

When both were dismissed, they continued their famous sessions in Millbrook, New York, from 1963 to 1967, in essence creating the laboratory conditions for the counterculture, in research that has since been validated once again as holding keys that might unlock depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Then, Alpert travelled to India in 1967 with a friend who called himself “Bhagavan Das,” beginning an epic spiritual journey that rivals the legends of the Buddha, as he describes it in the trailer below for the new documentary Becoming Nobody. He transformed from the infamous Richard Alpert to the soon-to-be-world-famous Ram Dass (which means "servant of god"), a guide for Western seekers who encourages people not to leave it all behind and do as he did, but to find their path in the middle of whatever lives they happen to be living.

“I think that the spiritual trip in this moment,” he said in one of his hundreds of talks, “is not necessarily a cave in the Himalayas, but it’s in relation to the technology that’s existing, it’s in relation to where we’re at.” It might sound like a friendly message to the status quo. But Ram Dass is a true subversive, who asked us, through all of the religious, academic, and psychedelic trappings he picked up, put down, and picked up again at various times, to take a good hard look at who we’re trying to be and why.

Ram Dass’ moment has come again, “as the parallels between today’s fraught political environment and that of the Vietnam era multiply,” writes Will Welch at GQ. “Yoga, organic foods, the Grateful Dead,” and psychedelics—“all of them are back in fashion,” and so are Ram Dass’ talks about how we might find clarity, authenticity, and connection in a distracted, technocratic, polarizing, power- and personality-mad society.

There are 150 of those talks now on the podcast Ram Dass Here and Now, with introductions from Raghu Markus of Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember Foundation. You can stream or download them at Apple Podcasts or at the Be Here Now Network, named for the teacher’s radical 1971 book that gave the counterculture its mantra. Ram Dass is still teaching, over fifty years after his transformation from acid guru to… well, actual guru.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, he described “nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s” as a younger generation showing “they’re tired of our culture. They’re interested in cultivating their minds and their soul.” How do we do that? The journey does resemble his in one way, he says. If we want to change the culture, we first have to change ourselves. Figure out who we've been pretending to be, then drop the act. “Once you have become somebody,” he says in the talk further up from 1976, “then you are ready to start the journey to becoming nobody.”

Learn much more about Ram Dass’ journey and hear many more of his inspiring talks at the Be Here Now Network.

Related Content:

Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

The Wisdom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Provoking Animations

The Historic LSD Debate at MIT: Timothy Leary v. Professor Jerome Lettvin (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

In the app-rich, nuance-starved culture of late capitalism, we are encouraged to conflate two vastly different concepts: the simple and the easy. Maybe no better example exists than in the marketing of meditation—the selling of an activity that, in essence, requires no specialized equipment or infrastructure. What mediation does require is a good instructor and encouragement. It is simple. But it is not easy. It’s true, you’ll hear teachers ruefully admit, they don’t print this on the brochures for retreat centers: but sustained meditation can be difficult and painful just as well as it can induce serenity, peace, and joy. When we sit down to meditate, we “feel our stuff,” to paraphrase David Byrne.

Next to the host of physical complaints and external stressors clamoring for attention, if we’ve got personal bad vibrations to contend with, they will hamper our ability to accept the present and relax. This is why, historically, those wishing to embark on the Buddhist path would first take ethical precepts, and practice them, before beginning to meditate, under the presumption that doing good (or non-harm) quiets the mind. “It is true that meditation is important in the Buddhist tradition,” writes Tibetan teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche at Lion’s Roar. “But in many ways, ethics and virtue are the foundation of the Buddhist path.”

Of course, there are non-Buddhist meditation traditions. And the mindfulness movement has demonstrated with great success that one can carve most of the religion away from meditation and still derive many short-term benefits from the practice. But to do so is to dispense with thousands of years of experiential wisdom, not only about the difficulties of sustaining a meditation practice over the long term, but also about meditation's inherent simplicity—something those of us inclined to overcomplicate things may need to hear over and over again.

Tibetan teachers like Mingyur (and teachers from every Buddhist lineage) are generally happy to expound upon the simplicity and joy of mediation, with the good nature we might expect of those who spend their lives letting go of regrets and fears. Sometimes their messages are packaged for easier consumption, which is a fine way to get a taste of something before you decide to explore it further. But the point remains, as Mingyur says in the video at the top from The Jakarta Poet, that “meditation is completely natural.” It is not a product and doesn't require any accessories or subscriptions.

It is also not an altered state of consciousness or a nihilist escape. It is allowing ourselves to experience what is happening inside and all around us moment by moment by tuning into our awareness. We can do this anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, as the monk further up tells us. “Even three seconds, two seconds, while you’re walking, while you’re having coffee and tea, while you’re having a meeting… you can meditate.” Really? Yes, since meditation is not a vacation from your life but an intensified experiencing of it (even the meetings).

We get a celebrity endorsement above from the man who plays the angriest man on television, Gordon Ramsay. The chef takes a break from his abusive kitchen rages to meet with a Thai monk, who says of his decision to enter the monastery, “I’ve been to many different places, I’d traveled around, but the one place I hadn’t looked at was my mind.” Westerners may hear this and think of far out states—and there are plenty of those to be found in Buddhist texts, but not much talk of them among Buddhist teachers. Generally, the word “mind” has a far more expansive range here than the firing of synapses: it includes movement of the stomach lining, the tension of the sinews, and the beating of the heart.

One of the most tragic misunderstandings of meditation casts it as a mental discipline, splitting mind and body as Western thought is wont to do for centuries now. But the awareness cultivated in meditation is awareness of everything: the senses, the body, the breath, the space around us, our cognition and emotion. Every Buddhist tradition and secular offshoot has its way of teaching students what to do with their often-ignored bodies while they meditate. The differences between them are mostly slight, and you’ll find a good guided introduction to beginning meditation focused on the body just above, led by Mingyur Rinpoche.

The happiness one can derive from a meditation practice does arrive, according to meditators worldwide, but it is not a solitary achievement, Buddhist teachers say, a prize claimed for oneself like a profit windfall. It is, rather, the result of more compassion, and hence of more humility, better relationships, and less self-involvement; the result of stripping away rather than acquiring. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who left a career in cellular genetics in his twenties to study and practice in the Himalayas, hasn’t shied away from marketing as a way to teach people to meditate. But he is also upfront about the importance of ethics to beginning mediation.

In addition to being a “confidante of the Dalai Lama,” notes Business Insider, Ricard is also “a viral TED Talk speaker, and a bestselling author.” His message is the importance of compassion—not as a goal to achieve some time in the future, but as the very place to start. “There’s nothing mysterious” about it, he says in an interview on Business Insider’s podcast. He then goes on to describe the basic practices of “Metta, ”among other things a way of training oneself to have kind and loving intentions for others in an ever-widening circle outward. In the video above, Ricard talks about the practice, and the science, of compassion at Google.

Many people balk at this kind of sentimental stuff, even from a man Google describes as “the world’s best bridge between modern science and ancient wisdom.” But if we can hear anything in the ancient wisdom distilled by these Buddhist teachers, perhaps it’s a simple idea fast-meditation apps and utilitarian programs generally skip. No, you do not need to put on robes, become a monk or nun, or take on a set of ancient traditions, beliefs, or rituals. But as American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says below, “if you want to learn to be wise and present, the first step is to refrain from harming yourself or others.”

Related Content:

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guided Meditation: A Time-Tested Way to Stop Thinking About Thinking

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Laurie Anderson Read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on New Album Songs from the Bardo

Laurie Anderson began her career as an artist in the late 1960s, and since then she's made connections both personal and professional with many of the most influential cultural figures of the past five decades. She has also, inevitably, seen a fair few of them depart this earthly existence, including her husband Lou Reed. The question of what happens to the dead is, for Anderson, apparently not without interest, even in the case of the non-human dead: the 2015 documentary Heart of a Dog traces the journey of Anderson's late pet Lolabelle through the bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism the liminal state between death and rebirth.

The bardo is the central theme of Bardo Thodol, better known to Westerners in translation as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. On the new album Songs from the Bardo, Anderson reads from that eighth-century text with improvisational accompaniment by, among others, Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal and composer Jesse Paris Smith.

Stereogum's Peter Helman writes that "Smith, the daughter of punk legend Patti Smith" — one of the many still-living influential artists in Anderson's wide network — "first met Choegyal in 2008 at the annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall." Seven years later, they enlisted Anderson to narrate the first performed version of what would become Songs from the Bardo.

"Anderson narrates text from the Tibetan Book Of the Dead while Choegyal, Smith, cellist Rubin Kodheli, and percussionist Shahzad Ismaily provide the musical accompaniment," writes Helman. "Smith plays piano and creates drone beds using a collection of crystal bowls, while Choegyal incorporates traditional Tibetan instruments like lingbu (a bamboo flute), dranyen (a lute-like stringed instrument), singing bowls, gong, and his own voice." In the record's liner notes, Choegyal writes of trying to "channel the wisdom and traditions of my ancestors through my music in a very contemporary way while holding the depth of my lineage." The music, Anderson explains, "is meant to help you float out of your body, to go into these other realms, and to let yourself do that without boundaries."

You can get a taste of this transcendence from "Lotus Born, No Need to Fear" the first sample track from the album the group has released. On it Anderson reads of the experience of the bardo, where "consciousness becomes airy, speeding, swaying, and impermanent." For a Metafilter user named Capt. Renault, listening brings to mind another of Anderson's artworks: her virtual-realty piece Aloft, which "has you sitting in an empty airplane which disintegrates around you, leaving you high, high above the ground with no support. You are aware of the possibility of death, but Laurie's smooth, comforting voice leads to a complete absence of fear, and you are free to explore this world she's created. Because of Laurie, I faced my death and I didn't mind it."

Related Content:

Leonard Cohen Narrates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Featuring the Dalai Lama (1994)

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s Three Rules for Living Well: A Short and Succinct Life Philosophy

Laurie Anderson’s Top 10 Books to Take to a Desert Island

Laurie Anderson Creates a Virtual Reality Installation That Takes Viewers on an Unconventional Tour of the Moon

When Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD, Experiencing “the Most Serene, the Most Beautiful Death” (1963)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Manuscript Reveals How Medieval Nun, Joan of Leeds, Faked Her Own Death to Escape the Convent

“The timeworn image of cloistered nuns as escapists, spurned lovers or naïve waifs has little basis in reality today,” wrote Julia Lieblich in a 1983 New York Times article, “The Cloistered Life.” “It takes more than a botched-up love affair to lure educated women in their 20’s and 30’s to the cloister in the 1980’s.”

The devotion that drew women to cloistered life in the fast-paced 80s, or today, also drew women in the middle ages. But in those days, an education was much harder to come by. Many women became nuns because no other opportunities were available. “Convent offerings,” Eudie Pak explains at History.com, “included reading and writing in Latin, arithmetic, grammar, music, morals, rhetoric, geometry and astronomy.” Other pursuits included “spinning, weaving and embroidery,” particularly among more affluent nuns.

Those “from lesser means were expected to do more arduous labor as part of their religious life.” Who knows what kinds of hardships 14th century Benedictine English nun Joan of Leeds endured while at St. Clement priory in York? The tedium alone may have driven her over the edge. Nor do we know why she first entered the convent—whether driven by faith, a desire for self-improvement, a “botched-up love affair,” or a less-than-voluntary commitment.

We know almost nothing of Joan’s life, except that at some time in 1318, she faked her death, left behind a fake body to bury, and escaped the convent to pursue what William Melton, then Archbishop of York, called “the way of carnal lust.” Joan’s sisters aided in her great escape, as the archbishop wrote in a letter: “numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful.”

The episode—or what we know of it from Melton’s register—struck University of York professor Sarah Rees Jones as “extraordinary—like a Monty Python sketch.” Joan’s story has become a highlight of The Northern Way, a project that “seeks to assess and analyze the political roles of the Archbishops of York over the period 1306-1406.” A number of records from the period have been digitized, including William Melton’s registry, in which Joan’s escape appears (see the page of scribal notes above).

One of the archbishop's roles involved interceding in such cases of runaway monks and nuns. “Unfortunately,” Rees Jones remarks, “we don’t know the outcome of the case” of Joan. Often, as one might expect, escapes like hers—though few as picaresque—had to do with “not wanting to be celibate…. Many of the people would have been committed to a religious house when they were in their teens, and then they didn’t all take to the religious life.”

The archbishop put matters rather less charitably: “Having turned her back on decency and the good of religion,” he writes, “seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

Or, as we might say today, she was ready to embark on a new life path. So desperately ready, it seems, that we might only hope Joan of Leeds remained “at large” and found happiness elsewhere. Learn more about The Northern Way project here.

via The Guardian/Medievalist

Related Content:

Experience the Mystical Music of Hildegard Von Bingen: The First Known Composer in History (1098 – 1179)

800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Why Knights Fought Snails in Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Unexpected Ways Eastern Philosophy Can Make Us Wiser, More Compassionate & Better Able to Appreciate Our Lives

I feel compelled to start this post with a disclaimer: do not take the eight-and-a-half-minute video above, "Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy" from Alain de Botton’s School of Life series, as an authoritative statement on Eastern Philosophy.

Not that you would, or that de Botton makes such a claim, but in an age of uncritical overconsumption, infinite scrolling, and individually-wrapped explainers, it seems worth the reminder. No tradition—and certainly not one as incalculably rich, deep, and ancient as the schools of thought summed up as “Eastern Philosophy”—can be paraphrased in an animated list.

Think of “Six Ideas from Eastern Philosophy” as a teaser. If you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that suffering is ever-present and universal—the first idea on de Botton’s list and the Buddha’s first Noble Truth—you might love… or make a good faith effort to appreciate… The Middle Length Discourses, the Shobogenzo, the poetry and songs of Han Shan and Milarepa, or the thousands of translations, commentaries, adaptations, and etcetera about them.

But the video isn't about famous texts. The logocentric characterization of philosophy as only writing persists, despite its serious limitations. In many Eastern traditions, writing and study are only one part of complex religious practices. The first two ideas on de Botton’s list come from early Indian Buddhism; the third from Chinese Chan Buddhism, the fourth and fifth are Daoist concepts; and the sixth, kintsugi, comes from Japanese Zen.

De Botton’s title is misleading. As he goes on to show, in brief, but with vivid examples and comparisons, these are not “ideas” in the broadly Platonic sense of pure abstractions but formalized ways of being with others and being alone, of being with objects and natural formations that embody ethical ideals of balance, equanimity, contentment, kindness, care, and deep appreciation for art and nature, with all their imperfections and disappointments.

Can we make much sense of the adoration of the bodhisattva Guanyin (whom de Botton compares to the Virgin Mary) if we never visit one of her temples or call for her compassionate aid? Can we study the subtleties of bamboo without bamboo? Can we grasp the Four Noble Truths if we can’t sit still long enough for serious self-reflection? Sometimes the practices, landscapes, and iconographies of Eastern philosophy do not seem separable from ideas about them.

If there’s a bow to tie on de Botton’s summary, maybe it’s this: from these Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, the endless bifurcations of Western thought are illusory. Pain, imperfection, and uncertainly are inevitable and not to be feared but compassionately accepted. And philosophy is something that happens in the body and mind together, an idea certainly not alien to the walking thinkers of the West.

Related Content:  

Eastern Philosophy Explained with Three Animated Videos by Alain de Botton’s School of Life

Alan Watts Introduces America to Meditation & Eastern Philosophy: Watch the 1960 TV Show, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life

What Is a Zen Koan? An Animated Introduction to Eastern Philosophical Thought Experiments

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

Atheists & Agnostics Also Frequently Believe in the Supernatural, a New Study Shows

To be a non-believer in some parts of the world, and in much of Europe for many centuries, means to commit a crime against the state. Even where unbelief goes unpunished by the law, “atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers,” writes Scotty Hendricks at Big Think, “are among the most disliked, untrusted, and misunderstood people.” Identified with Satanists (who are equally misunderstood), non-believers are presumed to be anti-theists, hell bent on destroying, or at least maiming, religion with their know-it-all dogmatism and hatred of different beliefs.

There may be some projection going on here, and maybe it goes both ways at times, though the balance of power, at least in the U.S., decidedly tips in favor of certain dogmatic religions. But as a new whitepaper from the UK group Understanding Unbelief found, in a wide-ranging survey of non-believers in six countries around the world, “popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny.” The outlier here is the religiously inflamed U.S. “Although American atheists are typically fairly confident in their views about God, importantly, so too are Americans in general.”

The paper’s authors are professors in theology, psychology, anthropology, and religious studies from four major U.K. Universities. They outline their eight key findings at the outset, then get into specifics about what the data says and how it was obtained, with large, full-color charts and graphs. The study shows more agreement than most of us might assume between the religious and non-religious on “the values most important for ‘finding meaning in the world and your own life.’”

“Family” and “Freedom” ranked highly. “Less unanimously so,” did “’Compassion,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Science,’” which may come as little surprise. The social and political identifications of non-believers fluctuate widely between the six countries—Brazil, Denmark, Japan, China, the U.S., and the U.K.—but, “with only a few exceptions, atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values, human dignity, and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature.”

These conclusions should interest non-believers and believers alike in the six countries surveyed, but the most sensational research finding states that “despite rejecting or at least questioning the notion of gods, unbelievers aren’t wholly divorced from superstitious belief,” writes Hendricks. The study’s authors put things in a more measured way: “only minorities of atheists or agnostics in each of our countries appear to be thoroughgoing naturalists,” ruling out the supernatural entirely.

Hendricks lists some examples:

Up to third of self-declared atheists in China believe in astrology. A quarter of Brazilian atheists believe in reincarnation, and a similar number of their Danish counterparts think some people have magical powers.

These findings might be consistent with the study’s methodology, which surveyed people who agreed with either 1. I don’t believe in God [or other divinity or spirit] or 2. I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. Neither of these mutually excludes the à la carte spiritualism of astrology, reincarnation, or magic, a fact that many religious believers cannot wrap their heads around.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, belief in seances, tarot, mesmerism, and other seemingly supernatural phenomena flourished, quite often independently of particular religious belief systems. One of the most rational minds of the time, or the creator of the most rational mind of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in fairies. Pierre Curie “was an atheist who had an enduring, somewhat scientific, interest in spiritualism.”

The study’s findings are “in line,” Hendricks points out, “with previous studies that show non-believers are just as prone to irrational thinking as their religious counterparts.” Significant percentages of atheists and agnostics express some belief in astrology, karma, "a universal spirit or life force," and other supernatural phenomena. Hendricks quotes Michio Kaku’s suggestion that there may be “a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic.” I don’t believe geneticists have found such a thing. But culture, at any rate, is not reducible to biology.

The fact that humans see, hear, feel, and believe things that may not actually exist seems to be an evolutionary trait. What may be equally, if not more, interesting is the way those supernatural things, whatever they are, both resemble and vastly differ from each other, their cultural specificities woven inextricably into the texture of language and custom. What and how we think cannot be fully separated either from our genes or from the conceptual apparatus we inherit, and that forms our picture of the world. Read the full Understanding Unbelief study here.

via BigThink

Related Content:

A Visual Map of the World’s Major Religions (and Non-Religions)

An Animated Introduction to the World’s Five Major Religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity & Islam

Christianity Through Its Scriptures: A Free Course from Harvard University 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast