Are We Nice?

May 17, 2015 at 10:22 am (By Realpc)

Just 200 years ago, slavery was legal and widespread in the US. Even more recently, women were considered inferior and were not allowed to vote. Unfair discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or race, was acceptable and normal

On top of all that, violent crime has been decreasing in recent decades, and there has not been a world war in 70 years.

Obviously humanity has been improving morally. Obvious to some, that is, but is it really true? And if it is true, what is the real cause?

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist who believes humanity is improving, and he believes it is because of modern scientific education and secular humanism. Among other things, but mostly he credits advanced, rational, “enlightened” thinking.

If Pinker is correct, then we would expect people who are less educated and sophisticated and “enlightened” to be more prone to acts of cruelty and violence. We would expect other animals, who are not educated of course, to be less moral and compassionate than humans.

Pinker’s views are shared by many other atheist secular humanists.

If you think carefully about those ideas, which may seem obviously true, can you find any logical holes in the reasoning?


  1. amba12 said,

    Well, for one thing, animals are very limited in aggression against their own species (as well as other species: predators only take what they need). Our symbolic capacity makes us dangerous in a way no other animal is: we do the most and the worst of our killing for ideas—ideas of “us” and “them,” of our god vs. their god, of purity, of beauty, potency, revenge, immortality. We value symbols more than realities—a discussion I had recently with a friend who’s trying to fund scientifically based nutritional approaches to cancer prevention and longevity (many of which wind up confirming in molecular terms the wisdom of traditional approaches). There’s no profit in it, and therefore little interest. Money is a symbol of immortality and people would rather have the symbol than the (modesty attainable) reality. They’d rather have an exciting, profitable drug that doesn’t work than a boring dietary modification that does.

    If you want to state it in scientific terms, the harnessing of the dopamine reward system to the symbolic capacity says a whole lot about the pros and cons of Homo so-called sapiens.

  2. amba12 said,

    As for the supposed reduction of violence, it’s more like we’ve outsourced it to machines, making it impersonal and larger-scale. To the extent that life is safer (which is questionable and if true at all, limited to the “developed” world), it’s only because of plenty. Human violence smolders in the hearths of households (violence begins at home) and is always ready to break out more widely again in times of stress or scarcity. But hardship can also bring out the best in people. We’re made for hardship and danger, and when our nervous systems don’t get that challenge from nature, we tend to create it.

  3. realpc920 said,

    I like all the points you made amba12. Some of them were what I was already thinking, and others I had not thought of.

  4. realpc920 said,

    Steven Pinker apparently is unaware that morality was not invented recently. All the so-called “primitive” tribes studied by anthropologists had moral codes Some practiced cannibalism, and other things we despise, but it was part of a ritual and not motivated by cruelty or selfishness.

    Different cultures value different things, and these values can evolve. Currently we hate slavery, but there are other things we think are just fine, which another culture might find abhorrent.

    PInker also seems to be unaware that non-human social animals have social codes. I think animals can be as, or more, compassionate than humans. Our “superior” intellect can inhibit and interfere with our compassionate instincts. The more “enlightened” and educated we are, in my opinion, the less direct and genuine our emotions are likely to be.

    I do not believe we are nicer than our ancestors. I think our values evolve, and we learn to exhibit the current values.

    Cruelty has not decreased and love has not increased.

  5. realpc920 said,

    We also have to consider why our lives seem peaceful, if we are middle class citizens of the US or some other technologically advanced nation.

  6. LouiseM said,

    Where does this consideration lead?

    What is the hope we hold onto when cruelty, trauma, loss and death threaten to overwhelm or lead to desolation?

    Do I know individuals in which cruelty has decreased and love has increased? Yes, I do.

    What accounts for this ability? What do I see in them?

    What I see is an ability to balance what they feel with what they think, what they sense with what they’ve learned. They function, in what D Siegel refers to as “integration”.

    When separated areas of the brain are allowed to specialize in their function and then to become linked together, the system is said to be integrated. Integration brings with it a special state of functioning of the whole which has the acronym of FACES: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable. This coherent flow is bounded on one side by chaos and on the other by rigidity. In this manner we can envision a flow or river of well-being, with the two banks being chaos on the one side, rigidity on the other. One way of viewing the symptoms of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for psychiatric diagnoses is as manifestations of rigidity or of chaos. This flow of well being can be seen to reveal the correlations among an empathic relationship, a coherent mind, and an integrated brain as three points on a triangle depicting well-being. From Awareness, Mirror Neurons, and Neural Plasticity in the Development of Well-Being, by Dr D Siegel with two quotes at the end from The Mindful Brain

    The answer to “Are We Nice?”, is less significant to me than the answers to “Can We Connect?”

  7. LouiseM said,

    From “The Mindful Brain”: Mirror properties of the nervous system provide an important window into examining the nature of culture and how shared ritual behaviors within our families, schools, and communities enable us to resonate with each others’ internal states, including intentions…Resonance, as we have said, is the functional outcome of attunement that allows us to feel felt by another person…

    We use our first five senses to take in the signals from another person. Then the mirror neuron system perceives these “intentional states,” and by way of the insula alters limbic and bodily states to match those we are seeing in the other person. This is attunement and it creates emotional resonance. The mirror neuron system interacts directly with the insula and other regions, such as the superior temporal cortex, to create what we are calling a “resonance circuit”…

    At the very least, these discoveries confirmed a clinician’s intuition that relationships are fundamental in a person’s life and well-being. But these findings also verified the importance for each of us to be attuned to our own internal states in order to attune to others. Here is where mindfulness, empathy, and interoception seem to overlap. Each may reinforce the other.

    The discovery of mirror neurons also revealed the ways that our brains are able to create representations of other people’s minds. This is a crucial view of how we are linked to each other on the mental plane of reality – our seventh sense, mindsight.

    Empathy requires that we reflect on our internal states. The mirror neuron system and related regions’ creation of emotional resonance shifts the limbic and bodily states so that the prefrontal region can reflect on those changes and create compassionate (feeling with another) an empathic (understanding another) responses. When we sense that resonance, when we become aware of being attuned, there may be the eighth sense we have been discussing in which we feel the state of our relational resonance. In this way, the resonance circuitry involves all eight senses and participates in creating a coherent state of mind.

    How and where does a coherent state of mind begin? Within the Self, with Others, in the context of a Greater Whole.

  8. LouiseM said,

    Curiously enough, sometimes the answers to the questions asked follow the asking in ways that surprise. Further reading online, unrelated to this post, brought the following quote to my screen:

    Thomas Merton, the famed Christian mystic, counseled a despairing friend: “Do not depend on the hope of results … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific
    people… In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

  9. realpc920 said,

    [The answer to “Are We Nice?”, is less significant to me than the answers to “Can We Connect?”]

    Well I wrote the post for a specific reason, so we could talk about the secular humanists and the fact that they are taking credit for human niceness. If they deserve that credit, then we can appoint them as dictators of the world, which I think is what they secretly subconsciously desire.

    Whether people can connect is not a question, for me. We are social animals living in a conscious universe so we can take for granted the fact that we can connect. We have to connect, because as social animals our existence depends on it.

    My argument is that we didn’t get our niceness and compassion from intellectuals or sages, not from religion or science or atheism or mysticism. It is part of nature and we are part of nature.

    I suppose a person could increase their niceness, if they wanted to, but I don’t know if that would be wise. Wisdom depends on balance, on deciding at every moment between our own needs and the needs of others.

    And if a person does want to increase their niceness, how can they know if their niceness is really increasing? Maybe their conscious perception of their own niceness is increasing, or their outwardly nice behavior is increasing. Maybe other people are saying oh what a nice guy — but what are they really inside? How can we know? How can they know?

    I believe we are naturally nice, and also naturally cruel. I don’t think there are many modern Americans who would admit to ever having any cruel thoughts or feelings, because our society has decided cruelty is unacceptable. But it’s there anyway, hiding in our society’s giant Shadow, sneaking out in subtle ways every time it gets a chance.

    Cruelty can be outward and obvious, or it can be almost invisible. When you turn away from someone because they are not bringing anything good into your life, just stealing your time and energy, you have turned off compassion for that person. Turning off compassion is cruel. It may be the right and sensible thing to do, but let’s just call it what it really is — cruel.

    Soldiers in a war have to turn off the natural compassion they feel for the enemy. That is obvious cruelty. But cruelty comes in many forms and varieties. Usually when people are being cruel they think they are being nice, or reasonable.

    But it’s ok to be cruel, we can’t help it, that is nature. Every good nice thing is balanced by something bad. It has to be that way. You could not comprehend love or compassion if you had no concept of cruelty or hatred.

    Connectedness is natural and necessary, and so is detachment and indifference.

    You could think of it as yin and yang, or something eastern like that.

  10. LouiseM said,

    Nice: a generalized term of approval, having a wide application.

    Once again, realpc, I’m not trying to be difficult, but I am having difficulty understanding what you mean by “nice/niceness” along with “cruelty” because right now it’s looking like our definitions may not match which makes connection in a positive, resonating kind of way a dickens to manage and knocks understanding for a loop.

    Are you willing to offer your definitions of them for the sake of clarity?

  11. realpc said,

    I am not defining them in any strange way. I define things in terms of their opposites, what they contrast with. That is not an unusual way for linguists to define words.

    Being nice to someone means trying to help them and trying not to hurt them, and not ignoring them. Being cruel is the opposite — not trying to help, trying to hurt, or ignoring.

    There are all degrees and of niceness and cruelty and all kinds of ways they can be expressed. But the basic concepts are simple.

  12. realpc said,

    “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

    Love is all you need, except for all the other things you need.

  13. LouiseM said,

    Love is all you need, except for all the other things you need.

    Are you being sarcastic, attempting a paraphrase, or declaring what you believe to be true?

  14. realpc said,

    LouiseM, I am always being dead serious.

  15. LouiseM said,

    Oh, realpc! The “always” in that statement invited a smile and sigh, along with the awareness that the opposite of dead serious is live humor.

  16. realpc920 said,

    I have never said anything sarcastic in my entire life.

  17. LouiseM said,

    In dead seriousness, I’m not finding the basic concepts of niceness and cruelty to be simple, realpc, and I don’t see them as opposites.

    As for defining by opposition: You can define something by opposition, A=-B, but you can define positively A=B or tautologically A=A. Words are defined positively. Thankfully so, since use of the opposite as the primary method of word definition would turn the dictionary into a circuitous mess.

    I personally consider niceness to be a form of social lubricant, used to gloss over awkward or difficult situations. The dictionary definition of nice, however, is all over the board covering everything from the obsolete use of the word to mean wanton, dissolute; coy, reticent; particular, exacting in requirements or standards; possessing, marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision and delicacy, on to modern day use of it to mean pleasing, agreeable; well-executed; appropriate, fitting socially acceptable; virtuous, respectable; polite, kind. All of which makes me wonder if the move from A to B with this word/concept indicates niceness evolving to become even nicer?

    On the humorous end of things, word etymology seals the deal, answering the question asked (Are We Nicer?) by providing proof that people have indeed become positively nicer in the last 800 years, with the meaning flipping enough over time to definitely throw simple for a loop!

    Nice: late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from Old French nice (12c.) “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant, unaware,” literally “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (see un-) + stem of scire “to know” (see science). “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c. 1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830).

    Cruelty is whole nother affair. The wiki definition matches my awareness and experience of cruelty as an indifference to suffering, and even pleasure in inflicting it. As with compassion, I believe the inclination toward cruelty present in humans requires outside influence to grow.

  18. LouiseM said,

    I have never said anything sarcastic in my entire life.</I.

    I have.

  19. LouiseM said,

    Add to that italicized “I have.” (which should be non-italic), this:

    Which leads me to believe people can and do change and grow to be more compassionate with themselves and others. Once I learned to recognize sarcasm as hidden anger, I was able to choose a different response.

  20. mockturtle said,

    Sarcasm was the lingua franca in my family growing up. I don’t think any of us was hurt by it–it was just our way. :-) We also shared [and still share] an ironic and sometimes dark sense of humor.

  21. mockturtle said,

    Personally, I’m more concerned with the lack of greatness in our world today [be it born-to, acquired or thrust-upon ;-)] than I am about people not being nice or even compassionate. It’s one thing [maybe the only thing] that drew me to Nietzsche–the belief in great men [or maybe women] who shape history.

  22. kngfish said,

    “A people is nature’s detour to produce six or seven great men. Yes, and then to get around them” ( Beyond Good and Evil 126)

  23. realpc said,

    I agree mockturtle, it’s hard to be funny without making fun of someone or something.

  24. realpc920 said,

    I am not sure what you mean by the lack of greatness mockturtle, but I can try to guess. This country was from the beginning a place of hope, of faith in humanity and progress, an expression of enlightenment ideals.

    And here we are, floating or drowning in our optimism/denialism. Especially since the second world war, our national ego has been inflated.

    We might have lost touch with the primitive darkness, the elementary power, of our souls.

    All our current ideologies are flabby, if you ask me.

  25. mockturtle said,

    We have embraced mediocrity.

  26. LouiseM said,

    Maybe we’ve traded one thing for another.

    According to Susan Cain, an introvert who wrote the book, “Quiet”, American society went through an important cultural shift in the opening years of the 20th century. It was one of those shifts that effected every person, even those who were unaware it had occurred or who took pride in being aloof from such things. Historian Warren Susman referred to it as a shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.

    “In the Culture of Character,” Cain notes, “the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private… But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.”

    According to Susman, The most frequently used words in the self-help manuals from the 19th century Culture of Character:
    Golden deeds

    And here are the most frequently appearing words in the self-help manuals of the early 20th century Culture of Personality:

    Is it possible that a combination of integrity and energy, along with character are personality are needed for greatness to be realized or, as noted on the other post, for what is “large and lovely” to influence imagination?

    It interests me to note the power of a post, regardless of how great, large or lovely the topic may be, to inspire thoughts and responses. I believe there is a seed of something small and great within humans that prompts thoughtfulness, creativity and connection, on a different level (dare I say higher?) than other mammals reveal, though present in a more limited degree with them as well.

    Yesterday the art instructor at pencil class, said the compositions we’ve been drawing are all about relationships, one shape with another, one color with another. In fact, he went so far as to say, “Art is relationship” and then challenged us to be more curious, playful and willing to experiment and move shapes around, to include placing one object in the picture partially off the page. This moved my cheese, while making me smile inside, because there was that word again, relationship. And when I told the acupuncturist that story today, he laughed and said, “Yes! Relationship is everything!”

    Perhaps believing and acting in that awareness is also part of greatness.

  27. kngfish said,

    LouiseM, that is very interesting….I wonder aloud what ‘unrelated art’ would look like. “This? No it has no connection to anything, any color, shape, size…I made it that way.” Are we now in the land of Kantian Tautological Rose Colored Glasses? And if so, can I get them in aviators or wayfarers?

  28. LouiseM said,

    I made it that way

    When an I makes an it
    or an eye makes an it
    would there not be
    a relationship
    formed or forming
    of one kind
    or another?

    It appears so from my vantage point, but then I don’t know what glasses work best these days for navigating journeys involving travel through the heavens and the earth, much less schemas and paradigm shifts. I’m unsure about the Kantian Tautological Rose Colored pair, as it’s been forty years since I tried on something along those lines while listening to the seller’s point of view and forming up my own observations; and I’ve since forgotten much of what seemed important then. I am now hoping for a clearer rather than a rosier view as I plod and soar toward the end. While Wiki served up what was could best be termed a generic description that was helpful, I’m one who’s continually on the lookout for more definition and experience so if you’re open to add more about Kantian colors and the tautological relationships, I’m all ears.

  29. wj said,

    If Pinker is correct, then we would expect people who are less educated and sophisticated and “enlightened” to be more prone to acts of cruelty and violence.

    I’d want to be real careful about just assuming that this is “obviously correct.” For openers, I’d like to see some elaboration for what constitutes “acts of cruelty and violence.” To take one obvious example, does making someone a loan that you know they will be unable to repay, and then siezing their home, constitute an act of cruelty? So we need some definitions here.

    And then, it would be nice to have some actual data. And mere crime stats are not going to help, because all you can use is conviction rates among various groups. And, as we all know, being less educated tends to mean you are less able to afford the quality of lawyer who can get you off. where someone else would have gotten convicted.

    Not saying that Pinker is necessarily wrong. Just that it is far from obvious that he is right either.

  30. LouiseM said,

    Pinker provides the definition he used for “violence” here:

    “How do you define “violence”?
    “I don’t. I use the term in its standard sense, more or less the one you’d find in a dictionary (such as The American Heritage Dictionary Fifth Edition: “Behavior or treatment in which physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.”) In particular, I focus on violence against sentient beings: homicide, assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping, whether committed by individuals, groups, or institutions. Violence by institutions naturally includes war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, and deliberate famines.”

  31. wj said,

    Thank you Louise, that definitely clears up that point.

  32. realpc920 said,


    I think I agree with what you seem to be saying, and I disagree with Pinker on several levels.

    There are plenty of highly educated white collar criminals, and I think destroying someone financially is a kind of violence. And there are plenty of highly educated managers who verbally abuse their workers. Destroying someone psychologically counts as violence, in my opinion.

    We may be getting less physically violent, but we probably make up for it with increasing non-physical violence.

    Less educated people are more likely to commit violent crimes, but I don’t think it’s because they are less educated and less “enlightened.” I think it’s just because they are more likely to be poor and poverty is obviously a major cause of crime.

  33. wj said,

    Then again, it might merely be that the more educated people have a) more scope for less physical attacks, and b) more appreciation of the fact that it is likely to be easier to evade sanctions for attacks which lack obvious physical evidence on the person of the individual attacked.

    In short, it might even be no decrease in attacks, just redirection of them. I’d prefer to think not, but I sure wouldn’t bet much on it.

    Just a thought.

  34. realpc920 said,

    I think what you said makes sense wj. A more educated person might have different outlets for their aggression than a less educated person. That does not mean they are less aggressive.

    Come to think of it, academics are well known for their vicious verbal warfare.

    Maybe Pinker is correct in saying physical violence has decreased, but I doubt it’s because we’re getting nicer. And I do not think secular humanism/progressivism should take credit for the decrease in violence.

    Progressives always point to the Scandinavia countries as their favorite examples of enlightened societies. Sweden or Denmark, etc., are less violent, less religious, and more socialist than the US.

    But is Western education and rational thinking the cause of their peaceful happiness? Or is it just that these are small relatively wealthy countries with homogeneous populations (not much racial or ethnic tension)?

    There are islands of peace and plenty in this world, but the vast majority do not live on those islands. According to progressive ideology, those islands will continue to grow until the whole world finally becomes a progressive paradise.

    But are they in touch with reality or lost in a fantasy?

  35. wj said,

    Well we may have a chance to see which explanation is correct. Since Sweden, in particular, has been taking exceptionally high numbers of refugees, it’s homogeneity is dropping a bit. And, as a result, they seem to be getting a little racial/ethnic tension as well.

    So, if they end up with the same kinds of problems as other Western European nations (or the US), then being small, homogeneous (and wealthy) may indeed be the explanation. On the other hand, if they remain more peaceful, then we’ll need to look at what else differentiates them from the rest of us.

  36. LouiseM said,

    There are islands of peace and plenty in this world, but the vast majority do not live on those islands. According to progressive ideology, those islands will continue to grow until the whole world finally becomes a progressive paradise.

    Is is possible for me to experience islands of peace and plenty in my own life, within my family, in my community? What invites and encourages those kinds of experiences? Can I find my way through conflict and survive scarcity? How do I encourage my children to do the same? What leads to resiliency? What leads to violence? What do I have to offer those who are trapped in trauma and live in the fearful residue of violent and abusive acts? It is possible to form new neural pathways, engage in different behavioral responses, and overcome addictions?

    These are the questions that are part of my current reality. That said, reading this week brought this observation from “The Place Beyond Fear and Hope”:

    I’ve noted that those who endure, who have stamina for the long haul and become wiser in their actions over time, are those who are not attached to outcomes. They don’t seek security in plans or accomplishments. They exchange certainty for curiosity, fear for generosity. They plunge into the problem, treat their attempts as experiments, and learn as they go. This kind of insecurity is energizing; people become engaged in figuring out what works instead of needing to be right or worrying about how to avoid failure. Whenever they discover something that does work, there’s a huge rush of energy, often accompanied by laughter.

  37. mockturtle said,

    I like that, Louise! :-)

  38. realpc920 said,

    It is possible to improve yourself, physically, socially, spiritually, etc., within natural limits. So it would not be impossible for someone to read a lot of self help books and become a “better” person, according to their goals and what they think is “better.”

    I get the impression that LouiseM is emphasizing the self-help possibilities, sort of as a reply to my contrary belief that we are actually not getting nicer. Or, if we are getting nicer (measured by decreasing levels of war and violence), then it is not because of modern scientific education and secular humanism, in my opinion.

    LouiseM brings up examples of herself or others beiing especially good human beings, maybe as evidence against what I said.

    Well for one thing, my original question was not whether individuals can become nicer (I think they can, within limits, and there are downsides). My question was whether progressivism and secular humanism can take credit for this.

    If society is kinder, more compassionate, now than it was 200 years ago, for example, what does that say about human beings now vs. then? It says that we are now morally superior to our predecessors. Does that seem plausible?

    And since animals can’t read self-help books or get a college education, they must be morally inferior also.

    In my opinon we are not morally superior to other creatures or other civilizations. (I won’t try to explain why I think that now, if I haven’t already explained it.)

    One very common theme in self-help spirituality and new age philosophy is the idea of spiritual evolution. The idea is that humanity is evolving spiritually, as a whole, and individuals evolve over the course of their reincarnations.

    I have no idea if that’s true, and I suspect it isn’t. I think reincarnation may be true, but the idea of spiritual evolution seems wrong to me. But whether it’s right or wrong, it is, in my opinion, not a helpful way to look at things.

    I’m reading a book by a mystical philosopher who believes in spiritual evolution. He says the divine spark is within everyone, but then asks the question why there is war, violence, hatred, etc., in the world.

    His answer is that people have free will, and are therefore free to choose the path of greed and hatred if they want to. He says that he personally has chosen the path of peace and love.

    I think hiis statement shows a lack of perspective, and might explain why communication between ideological groups can be so impossible.

    If I believe I have chosen the good path, while all the problems of the world are caused by those who chose the bad path, then I am being self-righteous and judgemental. Instead of thinking that maybe I don’t understand the reasons people might choose a different path from mine, I assume it’s because they don’t care about being good, they only want short-term rewards.

    I call this the Star Wars Syndrome, because there are good guys and bad guys and the bad guys know they are bad and they don’t care. (Of course we know lots of fiction that follows the same good vs evil pattern.)

    The paradox is that if you think you are on the side of the good guys (which I happen to doubt is really true of anyone by the way), then you must feel superior to the bad guys. And feeling superior is pride, and pride is a sin. Pride separates you from others and prevents you from respecting them or from having real compassion for them.

    The compassion generated by this kind of “good guy” is skin deep, in my opinion. Under the surface, below consciousness, is all the meanness and self-centeredness that any healthy human being is capable of.

    You are probably a better person, in my opinion, if you don’t consider yourself especially good.

  39. amba12 said,

    Oh, Mockturtle — watch out for those great men and women who shape history. The great are not good, and they destroy as they create.

    J and I once met a Czech film director, Jiri Weiss, who had been present at and filmed the liberation of one or more of the concentration camps. He said, “Be grateful that you live in an era of small men [Brezhnev not Stalin, e.g.].”

    The great carve their visions out of other people’s flesh, whether domestically and metaphorically (as many great artists have) or literally. I wouldn’t banish them if they arise, they are catalysts, and they make for magnificent, Shakespearean tragedies, but I wouldn’t go looking for them either.

    I’m a sort of Taoist, as in, leave things alone and they’ll take care of themselves. A wonderful Taoist fable about the do-gooder impulse run amok is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

    Another take on greatness from Lao Tau:

    “A leader is best
    When people barely know he exists
    Of a good leader, who talks little,
    When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
    They will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

  40. amba12 said,

    But . . .

    In The Lathe of Heaven, the world is catastrophically and repeatedly remade by the do-gooder; after he self-destructs, as it picks up the pieces, is not worse than the world before. It’s just different, and in a certain zigzag, crabwise way, that is not at all what the do-gooder had in mind, it has slyly progressed. At the cost of great losses it has made gains. It has evaded the all-or-nothing dichotomy between perfection and extinction. That’s how life evolved.

  41. realpc920 said,

    I don’t think biological evolution leads to improvement. I don’t see how we could say that a horse is an improvement over a butterfly, just because mammals evolved later. The biological system becomes more complex as it evolves, and the more recent species I guess are more intelligent. But is something better because it’s more complex?

    The evolution of human civilization on earth is also an increase in complexity. I don’t think that means it gets better, just more complicated. In a lot of ways, I think it gets worse.

    Biologists today equate evolution with adaptation, and that might be the cause of the confusion. Adaptation does make species better, because their ability to survive and reproduce in some environment improves.

    And maybe that confusion is why we think of evolution as improvement. Progressives, whether atheist or spiritual, seem to think this way.

    Evolution and adaptation are actually two different things, in my opinion (and according to information theory or systems theory).

    Adaptation by natural selection does not cause an increase in complexity or intelligence.

    (Because biologists do not differentiate between adaptation of existing species and the origin of new species, they think evolution can occur without intelligent guidance. And of course they think Intelligent Design is ridiculous.)

    The confusion of evolution with adaptation might have been the cause of the idea that life and civilization must be improving, rather than just getting more complex.

    Atheist progressives like Stephen Pinker believe human civilization is evolving and improving and becoming ever more enlightened. The implication of this belief is that some people are much better than others.

    But spiritualists, new-agers, etc., have similar beliefs. Even if they don’t believe Darwin’s materialist theory of evolution, they still may have been influenced by the confusion between adaptation and evolution.

    If you believe in spiritual evolution, then you think some people are better than others, because they are more evolved. They are less violent, more compassionate and wise, etc. I think most of us have believed this kind of thing for so long we don’t even know we believe it.

    But I don’t think some people are better than others, and it would be impossible to measure and or quantify anyway. I don’t think anyone is more spiritually evolved than anyone else. If that were true, it would be a caste system.

    Ken Wilber is a spiritual philosopher who developed color codes for the different levels of spiritual evolution. To me, they seem to be his personal view of the political spectrum, with the violent authoritarian rednecks at the lower end, and highly evolved progressives like himself at the high end. Well I could have interpreted his idea wrong, but it sure looked like an elitist caste system to me.

    So if I don’t think we are here to learn to become better, then why do I think we are here? I am sure we are here to learn something, but whatever it is is probably infinitely beyond words.

    I don’t think Jesus’ central message was to be nice. I think his message was very scary, probably in some ways true, and not something the human intellect can communicate or comprehend.

  42. realpc920 said,

    And I am not saying we shouldn’t try to be nice, whatever nice means. I am just saying it is not how our society has framed it.

  43. LouiseM said,

    I don’t think Jesus’ central message was to be nice. I think his message was very scary, probably in some ways true, and not something the human intellect can communicate or comprehend.

    According to one of the men who was closest to him, Jesus was “full of truth and grace”. Truth and Grace, when held in balance compliment each other are far different from “nice” and difficult to maintain and function in without going out of balance.

    I’m wondering what you believe the central message of Jesus to be and why it is “not something the human intellect can communicate or comprehend”?

  44. realpc920 said,


    If I think it can’t be comprehended or communicated, then how could I know what it is, and even if I did know, how could I explain it?

    I agree with you about truth and grace — that is definitely not the same as niceness. And Jesus was often angry and he was not always nice to everyone.

    I think the emphasis on Niceness is more recent, and might have really started in the mid 20th century, especially in the US. It is shared by atheist humanists and new age spiritualists, I think, from what I have been noticing. It results from progressive ideology and, I think, from denial of the Shadow (Jung’s concept of the dark hidden side of our nature).

  45. realpc920 said,

    BTW, everything I said about progressives and evolution does NOT apply to fundamentalist Christians. And there are a lot of them in the US.

  46. mockturtle said,

    Jung had the right idea about most things, IMO.

  47. realpc920 said,

    I agree mockturtle, and some of what he said was the opposite of what I am constantly seeing here in the Age of Denial.

  48. LouiseM said,


    by Roland Flint

    Now here is this man mending his nets
    after a long day, his fingers
    nicked, here and there, by ropes and hooks,
    pain like tomorrow in the small of his back,
    his feet blue with his name, stinking of baits,
    his mind on a pint and supper — nothing else —
    a man who describes the settled shape
    of his life every time his hands
    make and snug a perfect knot.

    I want to understand, if only for the story,
    how a man like this,
    a man like my father in harvest,
    like Bunk MacVane in the stench of lobstering,
    or a teamster, a steelworker,
    how an ordinary working stiff,
    even a high tempered one,
    could just be called away.

    It’s only in one account
    he first brings in a netful —
    in all the others, he just calls,
    they return the look or stare and then
    they “straightaway” leave their nets to follow.
    That’s all there is. You have to figure
    what was in that call, that look.

    (And I wouldn’t try it on a tired working man
    unless I was God’s son —
    he’d kick your ass right off the pier.)

    If they had been vagrants,
    poets or minstrels, I’d understand that,
    men who would follow a different dog.
    But how does a man whose movement,
    day after day after day,
    absolutely trusts the shape it fills
    put everything down and walk away?

    I’d pass up all the fancy stunting
    with Lazarus and the lepers
    to see that one.

  49. LouiseM said,

    If I think it can’t be comprehended or communicated, then how could I know what it is, and even if I did know, how could I explain it?

    More to the point, realpc, how did you come to form the four opinions about it listed in comment #43?

  50. LouiseM said,

    Jesus frequently used word pictures and stories to describe what he referred to as “the kingdom of God”. A story is a powerful vehicle of communication which allows the hearer or reader to enter and comprehend from their own perspective, imagination and experience and find meaning. Oddly enough thousands of people have devoted their lives to the “message” they believe they’ve heard in the stories he told as part of his teaching. The formation of hospitals was one result, with many of them bearing the name Good Samaritan. He did say those who had ears to hear and eyes to see would be blessed with understanding, while there’d be others who refused to see, hear or find something to live by in the stories he shared.

    While anger was one of the emotions Jesus experienced, it does not appear to be predominant in his ministry or the stories about him recalled by those who followed him (with two mentions of it to my recollection) while his compassion for others is noted over and over.

  51. realpc920 said,

    It’s obvious to me that Jesus’ central message was faith, and faith means trusting something even though you know you can’t understand it.

    Saying the central message of Christianity is compassion depends on a selective reading and interpretation of the gospels. I think it’s a modern progressive interpretation.

  52. wj said,

    And yet Jesus said “All the Law and all the Prophets are this: Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.”

    If loving your neighbor as yourself isn’t an injunction to compassion, what is it?

  53. realpc920 said,

    There can be an injunction to compassion without it being the central message. Atheist progressives think that’s the whole point of religion, and therefore we don’t need religion. We can be compassionate and have faith in humanity, without any supernatural beliefs.

    The Old Testament includes extensive and detailed laws, but that doesn’t mean the Old Testament is all about laws and morality. Now we can separate religion and law, but in those days there was no separation.

    And loving God with all your heart is different from loving your neighbor as yourself. He didn’t say love yourself with all your heart, or love your neighbor with all your heart.

    Our relationship with God comes before everything, imo. That doesn’t mean our other relationships don’t count, just that they are secondary.

  54. realpc920 said,

    And this may be beside the point but … we all know that everyone loving everyone is an unrealistic and impossible goal. There has always been tension and controversy, and sometimes violence, between different versions of Christianity. If followers of a religion that emphasizes love can’t manage to get along, how is everyone else supposed to?

    If you have read the New Testament then you know that there were different versions of Christianity from the very beginning, and there was intense animosity between them. This is obvious from some of Paul’s letters. Of course, we only get to hear his side of it.

    So I will repeat this again — people who claim to love everyone really don’t, and they don’t get along with everyone either. Maybe on the surface.

  55. wj said,

    Well, love comes in different flavors and strengths. For example, even if you love someone you can vigorously disagree with them on diverse points. But you will generally tolerate their (misguided) views — even if only by avoiding the topics that you disagree on.

    And tolerance seems to be to be as good an index for “nice” as any.

  56. realpc920 said,

    Yes wj tolerance, and respect, are extremely helpful. Most things are not worth fighting about.

  57. LouiseM said,

    Tolerance is again one of those behaviors that involves a sliding scale and requires consideration. What is tolerated with a puppy or human youngster may not be acceptable behavior for an adult dog or person living in community and/or relationship with another. Limitations and accommodations need to be weighed and made in order for regard to be realized, respect to be experienced and social behavior to be learned. There comes a point where tolerance can very easily tip over into enabling, denial and/or turning a blind eye, which is what happens when grace and truth become unbalanced. Human and animal youngsters that are shown respect, regard and boundaries learn how to balance freedom with limitations, an outcome which appears more valuable to me than learning to be or appear “nice”.

  58. LouiseM said,

    What seems obvious to you, realpc, may be very different from what others regard or believe the central message of Jesus to involve.

    While faith is described as a valuable attribute in the Old Testament and appears to be the result of beliefs formed through encounters, experiences and awareness of the Most High G-d, faithlessness and the difficulty involved with holding on to faith and living with integrity appears to be one of the central messages of the Old Testament. The Book of Hebrews includes a list of the “heros of faith” from the OT that describes 16 of the men and women of old who believed and held on to faith even though they did not receive what was promised. On that list are 8 men and 1 woman who lived before Moses and the arrival of the Law, along with 6 men and 1 woman who lived after him. Preceding the list is this description: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

    Faith does not appear to me to be the central message of Jesus’s ministry, and neither does love, though it appears to function as the energy behind, around and within his message.

    This afternoon, after reading the comments posted here, I looked online to see what others might consider the central message of Jesus to be and was interested to find this by the Rev Dr. Mark D Roberts over at Patheos,, in which he says:

    Here is Mark’s (the disciple) summary of the core of Jesus’ message. It is, in a nutshell: The kingdom of God has come near. The phrase “kingdom of God” appears 53 times in the New Testament Gospels, almost always on the lips of Jesus. The synonymous phrase, “kingdom of heaven,” appears 32 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Throughout the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, he is always talking about the kingdom of God. Many of his parables explain something about this kingdom: it is like mustard seed, a treasure, a merchant looking for pearls, and a king who gave a banquet (Matt 13:44-47; 22:2). Jesus even defines his purpose in light of the kingdom: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

    However, the apostle John, presents a different take, drawing this conclusion from what was most obvious to him: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

  59. realpc920 said,

    “There comes a point where tolerance can very easily tip over into enabling, denial and/or turning a blind eye, which is what happens when grace and truth become unbalanced.”

    I agree LouiseM. Things that require grace and balance can never be done perfectly, and cannot be conveyed in simple rules.

  60. realpc920 said,


    Yes it’s true that Jesus mostly talked about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, and he said it’s something that is within us. That is probably the central message of all mysticism. To me, Jesus was a typical mystic with a typical message. However, I still don’t think we can understand it intellectually.

    And I don’t think the central message of mysticism is compassion. Compassion is only part of it.

  61. LouiseM said,

    Yes, Jesus did say the Kingdom of Heaven was within us as well as “at hand” and “coming”, while providing numerous examples of that mystery in stories that started with the words, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

    Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, presents his view of mysticism in religion and Jesus here:

    He uses the “always” word when he says “ the true mystic is always both humble and compassionate, for she knows that she does not know”. defining a mystic as one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience.

    All spiritual traditions agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and available to everyone. In fact, Jesus seems to say that this is the whole point! (See, for example, John 10:19-38.)

    Some call this movement conversion, some call it enlightenment, some transformation, and some holiness. It is Paul’s “third heaven,” where he “heard things that must not and cannot be put into human language” (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). Consciously or not, far too much organized religion has a vested interest in keeping you in the first or second heaven, where all can be put into proper language and deemed certain. This keeps you coming back to church, and it keeps us clergy in business.

    This is not usually the result of ill will on anybody’s part; it’s just that you can lead people only as far as you yourself have gone. Transformed people transform people.

  62. mockturtle said,

    What Jesus taught was not as important as what he did, e.g., die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. His message was that we all are sinners and need a Savior. Those who believed they were righteous, like the Pharisees, were very insulted, of course.

  63. realpc920 said,

    I agree that his message was that we are all sinners and need a Savior. That is the opposite of the progressive message, whether atheist or new age.

  64. LouiseM said,

    I wonder if the message of Jesus might be “bigger than” rather than the “opposite of” the progressive message? Not only did he declare God to be Light, he also announced himself to be the Light of the world, and went on to tell others they were the light of the world, likening them to a city on a hilltop that can’t be hidden.

    That Light, wherever it resides, continues to shine on those who doubt and those who stone, as well as those who think they have the answers all sewed up, constantly inviting them to ask, seek, knock, and look for more awareness and relationship with open ears and eyes.

    Among his followers, the disciple Thomas was invited to “touch” what he was unsure about in order to verify presence and relieve doubt, whereas the Apostle Paul in his absolute certainty was temporarily blinded, and Peter who so thoroughly and completely denied every knowing Jesus or having anything to do with him, was invited to declare his heart three more times and prompted through a vision to become the one who welcomed and invited Gentiles to experience the good news of Jesus and receive his Spirit. All three men experienced an “opposite” before stepping through the door to something more.

    Perhaps “others”, labeled here as progressives and secular humanist atheists, are not so much opposite as limited by whatever scope or view they currently hold, which does not mean what they’ve found through research is completely and utterly unworthy of consideration or regard.

    In the link provided in comment #61, Rohr does a fine job of describing the three different ways humans tend to “see” and perceive what is before them.

  65. LouiseM said,

    Back to comment #1, and the reference to “our symbolic capacity”. How and why did that capacity form in human animals to the extent and degree that it did, with such incredibly strong and potent reinforcements present for it to be used for good and ill, for building up and annihilation? Something seems off with the evolutionary process with regard to this feature.

    For a contemporary Jewish perspective, reaching back into history, this came in the mailbox this week from Rabbi Simon Jacobson at$BehaalotechaCOLON_A_Secret_Formula_for_Protection.php, who presents another take on the matter:

    At times we all sense something “behind the scenes” – a force above and beyond our own existence. But true reality is like a brilliant light, an unbridled flow of energy. Unshielded we would be blinded by the light, overwhelmed by the energy force, not merely unable to see, but unable to be. Our independent existence could not survive, our independent sense of self would cease to exist were we submerged in the boundless energy of higher reality.

    Consciousness, therefore, is actually a state of concealment. Our sense of existence – the feeling that “I am” – is possible only due to shrouded energy. Paradoxically, true awareness is not what we fathom, but that which we don’t fathom; to be awake means to be aware that we are asleep. True awareness is when we are aware of something beyond our awareness.

    Yet, we are not trapped in an airtight prison. A delicate drape conceals the higher reality. As you look at the garment you sense that it is beckoning you while protecting you, drawing you closer while keeping you away. But when you look closely, you can discern the fine fibers, threads and filaments engraved in the cloth, which in turn allow you to sense the powerful rumblings behind the screen.

    Our life’s work on this side of the “curtain” is to channel and draw into our beings and our environments the light and energy from behind the curtain, in effect reconnecting both sides of the curtain.


  66. realpc920 said,

    Our separateness and individuality is an illusion, because we are each just an aspect of the infinite Mind.

    We are evolving towards something and for some purpose, but we can’t know what it is. Obviously a human being is something more than a cockroach. Although I don’t think we are superior to the other creatures, it is hard to deny we are something more.

    I am sure we are not evolving towards increasing niceness or compassion, or better mental or physical health, or better social organizations. The increasing complexity of our civilization actually creates ever more sickness and craziness, in my opinion.

    But we are not going downhill either — we are progressing towards something, but what? We are not more spiritual than our primitive ancestors were, and in fact I think we are much less spiritual and more worldly, in general, than they were.

    I think one thing we are getting is increasing awareness. We have access to so much information and we can see beyond our own little social contexts. All that information gives us perspective. The perspective does not make us nicer or wiser, imo, but it gives us things to think about.

    I definitely do not think some people are more evolved than others. Some are more thoughtful and introspective and analytical, but that doesn’t make them better. Some are more scientific, others are spiritual, others are practical. And some specialize in compassion and care-taking. Each of us, maybe, is a different way of God exploring and inventing and creating.

    Life might be sort of like a game, a chance for the infinite Universe to become all the different actors in a play.

    War and violence and life or death situations are all part of it. The world wasn’t created so that every human being can have a car and a secure job with health insurance. What kind of adventure story would that make?

    I disagree with the atheist progressives, of course, and I disagree with the religious fundamentalists, and I also disagree with the new agers. So who is left? It’s getting hard to find a modern group that I agree with.

  67. amba12 said,

    New age and “denial of the Shadow (Jung’s concept of the dark hidden side of our nature)” — right on, realpc.

  68. LouiseM said,

    Akiane, the child prodigy artist who was on Oprah when she was eight, is now twenty years old and still painting. One of her most recent ones, according to Facebook, is this one, called Life Maze:

    Last year she painted “Balance” and posted these words to accompany it:
    Here is a sneak peak at my new painting “Balance”.

    Black or white, up or down, artificial or real. What makes balance? Who keeps it? Both the white and black realms portray our ever changing directions constantly taking over one another.

    The white and black rooms were once someone’s home. Years passed, and the nature took a new course: a birch tree grew into a ladder, a sign of harmony connecting the two opposite worlds.

    Life is a battlefield for survival. Man is powerless against most natural disasters. Nature is powerless against man-made destruction. However, in the end, nature always outlives humanity. Our universe is an intelligent and interconnected organism that interacts with us in the most unexpected and humbling ways.

  69. realpc920 said,

    “Our universe is an intelligent and interconnected organism that interacts with us in the most unexpected and humbling ways.”

    Well I have to agree with that LouiseM.

  70. LouiseM said,

    Well I have to agree with that LouiseM.

    I wondered if you would! I’ve enjoyed this thread, along with the questions and thoughts that have come up as a result of your post. Thank you for offering it up for discussion and input.

  71. realpc920 said,

    Thanks for all your comments LouiseM. I think “humbling” is the important concept, which our progressive modern society is lacking.

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