The Great Story (A Reality Based Religion led by Michael Dowd)

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Michael Dowd recently introduced himself in a comment on one of my blog posts. Reviewing his large body of work has been a pleasant surprise because I thought I was aware of most of the thinkers and activists in the overshoot space, and Dowd has some excellent fresh ideas.

We seem to share a few things in common. We were born within 7 days of each other. We have been deeply influenced by many of the same great minds. We have come to similar conclusions about the severity of human overshoot. And we both would like to find some path to making the future less bad.

I’ve long thought there might only be two possible paths to pulling humanity back from the precipice. All of our destructive behaviors were created in the crucible of evolution when daily survival was paramount and overshoot was a distant future problem. Any “solution” must acknowledge the genetic underpinning of our behaviors and find a way to shift those behaviors in a positive direction.

One possible path is to acknowledge the genetic disposition for spirituality in humans, and the power religions have had throughout history to influence behavior, and to create a new religion with an overshoot harm reduction agenda. This is the path it seems Dowd has chosen.

Dowd leads a new religion grounded in science and reality that worships the universe and life, and that acknowledges the special responsibility our species has because of its rare and possibly unique ability to understand how the universe and life were created, and how our behaviors are placing us and other species in peril.

Here are the ten commandments:

ten-commandments-one-slide

This is the third of a three-part series of videos Dowd recommended as an overview of his movement. I think this sermon is excellent and worth your time.

Dowd thinks that religions are stories created by humans to explain the reality they currently live in. Our reality today is much different from the reality 2000 years ago. Today we understand the science of lightning and floods and famine and plagues and life and death. Dowd says we need to update our religious stories to reflect our current understanding of the world. He makes a persuasive case that this new story is much more majestic and inspiring than any of the old stories. An example Dowd gives is that everything in the universe, including amazing brains capable of understanding this paragraph, emerged from a cloud of hydrogen that obeyed a few well understood physical laws.

Dowd thinks the genetic underpinning of religion is the brain’s propensity to give human characteristics to non-human things in our world. I do not disagree with Dowd that the brain has this behavior but I would explain it differently. The human brain is a computing machine that creates models to explain and predict reality. We create new models using fragments of models we already have to explain what we see and to influence what we hope will happen. Some of these models (or stories) have evolved over time into thousands of religions and gods.

So far so good. Where we may disagree is that I think Varki’s MORT theory points to a deeper and more important genetic foundation of religion, denial of mortality. There is much evidence to this claim which I explored here and here. An important point being that if religions were mainly about explanatory stories and not about denial of mortality we would expect to see a few random religions with life after death stories, but not as we observe, a life after death story central to every single one of the thousands of religions, including new religions like Scientology. As a famous comedian/actor whose name we may no longer speak once said, “I don’t want to live on in the minds of my fans, I want to live on in my apartment”.

The reproductive fitness of an intelligent social species is often improved by a more powerful brain. Therefore there is evolutionary pressure in some species to become smarter. As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. The MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that sufficient brain power to understand mortality, on its own, lowers reproductive fitness through reduced risk taking and depression because all complex species have evolved behaviors to avoid injury and death. Thus there is a barrier to increased brain power that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of mortality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life for 2 billion years until a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) created the eukaryotic cell.

Humans are the only species, so far, on our planet to have crossed the barrier. Several other intelligent social species like elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and crows may be blocked at the barrier. It seems likely we outcompeted or killed all of our many hominid cousins that were blocked at the barrier for over a million years.

Evolution appears to have implemented denial of mortality in humans by tweaking the fear suppression module in our brain, which resulted in behavior that manifests as broad denial of all unpleasant realities, including mortality.

This then leads to the second promising path for trying to make the future less bad.  I believe it is our inherited denial of reality that is the most important obstacle to shifting human behavior in a positive direction.

There are several encouraging examples that suggest broad awareness of a harmful inherited behavior can shift society’s average behavior in a positive direction. I plan to explore these examples in a later essay.

So my chosen path is to try to increase awareness of our strong genetic tendency to deny the behaviors that cause overshoot, and to deny the imminent dangers of overshoot.

I nevertheless applaud Dowd’s chosen path and wish him well. It will be interesting to see if a religion can succeed that conflicts with the underlying goals of our genes, namely to maximize replication by competing for finite resources.

It must have been so much easier 2000 years ago when the message of religions was to go forth, multiply, and exploit the earth’s bounty that God created for the exclusive benefit of his chosen people.

I know from experience that a message of no more than one child, austerity, and conservation is a tough sell.

I recommend you spend some time at Dowd’s site The Great Story. It has a deep library of wisdom from many great minds relevant to our predicament.

Dowd has invested a large amount of time creating audio versions of important books and documents. I’m currently re-reading his audiobook version of William R. Catton, Jr.’s seminal 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

15 thoughts on “The Great Story (A Reality Based Religion led by Michael Dowd)”

  1. Hey Rob, all is stories .Stories define humans as much as anything.

    The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories

    Where a third of our entire life goes, or what professional wrestling has to do with War and Peace

    “Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal, educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.”

    https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/05/03/the-storytelling-animal-jonathan-gottschall/

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-storytelling-animal

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    1. I agree. It seems one of the first things our brains did after breaking through the MORT barrier was develop sophisticated symbolic language. The key question is, do religions begin as stories that explain many things including death? Or do religions begin with denial of death and then develop stories to elaborate this and other observations. I think the evidence points to the latter, and MORT explains the evidence.

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  2. “Robert Sapolsky talked about his book Behave-The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, in which he attempts to answer what drives human behaviors such as racism, xenophobia, tolerance, competition, morality, war, peace, and more. ”

    Great book. Humans are complicated in some ways and predictable in others, but I see all of their behaviour as happening under the MPP umbrella.

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    1. I recently read Sapolsky’s Behave. Really good. I particularly liked the discussion of his personal battle with depression and how the brain is easily screwed up.

      I agree MPP is fundamental to behavior. The way I think of it is energy makes everything happen in the universe, including life. And MPP is the physical law that explains energy in life. The reason the MPP says what it says seems clear when you think about what replicators do.

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  3. Science is most inspiring.

    Everything in the universe is a naturally occurring part of the universe (Nopotu). That is easy to see for rocks and maybe even trees but most people overlook that fundamental truth when considering them selves and others.

    Not only are dogs, cats and newts naturally occurring parts of the universe but so are you. Not just your body either but your senses, feelings, thoughts and intuitions are also something that the universe appears inherently able to do given the fact that you literally are universe that has that capacity.

    I’ve been turning this very idea into my own religion most of the last decade and have found daily inspiration in it.

    I am a bit of universe bewildered by the fact that a bit of universe has the capacity to feel bewilderment. I am conscious cosmos that can love, hate, fear, see, hear, taste and fart.

    I find it amazing that a bit of sentient star-stuff has the capacity to not only take poops, but also to generate and become amused by poop jokes.

    We are not just Earthlings. We’re Verslings. It is not uncommon for people that realize what we realize about overshoot to come to these same realizations. John Michael Greer is doing something similar over at https://www.ecosophia.net/ but focusing more on the spirituality side as opposed to the religious side.

    This is a thing and one of my main sources of hope as we tumble down this net-energy mountain we’ve built for our selves.

    Thanks for this site and this post.

    I use the following mantra daily to strengthen my connection to the universe as a whole…

    ||: the universe awake and aware that I am :||

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    1. My definition of religion is a public story about life after death that a group of people believe.

      My definition of spirituality is a private story about life after death that an individual believes.

      What definitions are you and John Michael Greer using?

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      1. Sorry I didn’t see this until recently.

        I can’t speak for Greer but in my comment you can take the words as meaning…

        Spirituality: The quest for finding meaning.

        Religion: The methods by which that with meaning is ritually worshiped, revered, respected and evolved.

        Neither of my usages have much to do with death and more to do with life.

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  4. Rob, I only just today discovered this post that you wrote a month ago… Thanks!

    Other than expressing my heartfelt gratitude, the only thing I’d say in response is that you have a woefully outdated (from an evidential standpoint) and rather stereotypical view of religion.

    I recommend the acclaimed religious naturalist, Loyal Rue’s writings (especially, “Religion Is Not About God” and “Everybody’s Story”), and Connie’s and my interviews with him at his cabin (both those on his books and the “Friends on Dark Mountain” conversations we had a year later). See here: http://thegreatstory.org/loyal-rue-videos.html

    On a related note, Connie and I would like to interview you as part of our “Inspiring Naturalism” podcast, if your game. (Most of these were recorded BEFORE we “got” climate, energy, and overshoot.) See here: http://inspiringnaturalism.libsyn.com/

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  5. Thanks for making me aware of Loyal Rue’s work . He seems to promote a form of religion similar to yours which I consider rational, wise, and potentially helpful for our overshoot predicament. I also did not detect any belief in life after death.

    There are clearly a few people on the planet that do not deny reality. Yourself, Rue, and myself might belong to that minority. I do not know if we exist because of determination and effort, or because we were born with a genetic abnormality. Our existence does not disprove Varki’s MORT theory, nor does it invalidate the observation that all traditional religions have at their core a belief in life after death.

    I would be interested to know how many people in the world actively practice some form of Naturalistic Spirituality. I could not find the number with a search. I predict, based on Varki’s MORT theory, that the number is a very small percentage of 7 billion, and that it is growing at about the same rate as the population is growing. In other words, these people are genetic outliers. If the data shows otherwise, this might cast some doubt on Varki’s theory.

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