Adam Blatner

November 17, 2006

The point of this essay is to note that faith involves in part the psychology of meaning, which in turn should be recognized as an aggregate experience. The psychology of such experiences is described, as well as some implications of this formulation.

Meaning is not “out there,” any formula or system of thought; rather, it is an experience. People feel their lives or a particular situation is meaningful according to some general themes, such as the component elements of purpose and belonging. In fact, though, meaning—and by extension, the activity of faith, the belief in God, are subjective, products of attitude, expectation, memory, and emotional linkages to a host of various types of experiences.

In another paper, I make a similar suggestion about the concept of self, which, like meaning, is proposed as an aggregate experience, composed of many elements. Sometimes, deficits or “thin” experiences in some sectors can be compensated for by richer or more deeply felt experiences in other ways. I am suggesting the same dynamic for the sense of meaning, and, indeed, there is even some overlap between the sense of self and the sense of meaning.

People generally have faith in certain ways of thinking not because of simple reasons but rather because of these other elements. Then rationalizations are added on. Some of the other elements include the following:
  – positive memories of sensual associations, smells, light, music, sounds, architecture, tastes of food, the mixture of participation and relationship with others doing similar actions, etc.
  -- positive emotional connections with other people who share a belief or symbol system
  -- positive inner connections with the stories of certain people they find admirable, heores, important, charismatic
  -- some element of contrast with common elements of experience that are rejected as representing lower values
  -- a stronger feeling of wanting to re-align, after a period of time that has evoked feelings of guilt, shame, fatigue, alienation, and the like. For them, such a turn-around can seem as if one is “saved.”
  – the attraction of ideal and thoughts, certain symbols and themes that can be associated with higher status (such as the exoticism of the Orient)
  – the quality of story, narrative, myth, that seems grounding and plausible, helping the universe and one’s life in it to seem more coherent than it may have been previously
  – experiences or attention drawn to that which evokes a sense of awe, wonder
  – experiences associated with the uncanny, psychic, visitations by spirits, mystical, etc.
  – finding a calling, a personal path that calls on one’s gifts, skills, talents, interests, abilities, and the like

The more moving such components are, the more they serve to evoke or sustain belief.

In contrast, many of the experiences of daily life, work, and operating within the community are tainted with a variety of diluting or anti-meaning pressures. Life can seem callous, distracting, requiring significant compromises with one’s personal value system. Often people feel vaguely ashamed, guilty, spread thin, caught up in a world that is crass. Modern life–and especially the commercialization pressures of modern media—fill life with a sense of demanding and competition, of having instead of becoming, and so forth. Such pressures tend to dilute the sense of life as meaningful, and a counter move towards affirming meaning is needed.

A Paradigm Shift Towards Underlying Principles

In spite of the seeming increasing of religiosity and even fundamentalism in some sectors, my impression is that there has been a more general increase in an attitude that supports the general attitudes associated with faith and rejects or downplays the importance of specific ideas or dogmas. I think this is due to a variety of factors:
  – family members who have married outside the faith, pulling on people to open their hearts, be inclusive in the face of old habits of thinking
  – general trends towards civil rights and against prejudice, bigotry, racism
  – increasing numbers of people who have been able to generate looser belief systems and who don’t seem to care that much about the details
  – increasing churches and denominations that are espousing this more general and inclusive faith, such as Unitarians, Unity, New Thought, Science of Mind, Bahai, atc.
  – a broader range of things to relate to that evoke the sense of the holy
  – mobility, which dilutes the power of attachment to a single church or tradition
  – the introduction of other vivid and evocative religious traditions
  – scholarship that has made it interesting and respectable to value elements from others’ religious traditions
  – increasing numbers of people who have changed religions, experimented with other religions or even exotic traditions
  – experiences with psychedelic drugs that evoke some mystical experiences that are not particularly grounded in a willed focus on, assertion of, or contemplation on the specifics of dogma or belief
  – the growth of skeptical and rational traditions and the prevalence of their voices, even arising from within the ranks of the faithful, about the need to accept literal meaning in dogma or scriptures

The point here is that a number of factors are operating to support a new paradigm of faith, one that is less firmly linked to specific beliefs and more associated with a general feeling of the importance of inclusiveness, fellowship, respect, and a general attitude of idealism and reverence of life.

A Secular Faith

I will confess to having grown up with a secular faith. In the United States, during and after the Second World War, there were a number of ways I unconsciously constructed a very rich and vigorous sense of meaning:
  – I chose a vocation that was highly respected (i.e., medicine); this field had a rich historical tradition, many ideals, and partook of the general belief in the goodness of progress.
  – The culture as a whole was flush with victory, optimistic, self-righteous in its ideals, and coasting on the continuing exploitation of cheap sources of energy and raw materials that characterized the Americas at that time
  – Science was rich in quasi-religious elements, the wonders of advances in astronomy, physics, and so forth; it was also unbounded in its optimism, anticipating space travel and amazing technologies.
  – The secular, scientific culture believed that its thinking was ultimately true, in contrast to the more primitive, quaint, or merely superstitious religions and alternative worldviews of the past and of other countries or sectors within American society.

The point here is that in retrospect, all these were also part of a belief system, a kind of mythos, that had limitations that at the time were not apparent! Fifty years later a number of other developments had supervened so that the “non-religion” of modern thought, reaching its apex in the mid-20th century,  was able to be recognized as itself subject to the psychological and philosophical and comparative mythological analysis as a kind of religion, also!

(I was born into a mildly religious Jewish family, drew away from religion in my early teens, yet continued to be fascinated with the mystery of faith. I gradually deepened my meaning matrix and by the mid-1980s it would be fair to say that this processed passed the threshold of what might be considered "spirituality," although it wasn't firmly aligned with any particular denomination. Its closest connections have been to the "Process Philosophy" of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, with an admixture of ideas from Teilhard de Chardin, Ken Wilber, J. L. Moreno, Carl Jung, the Kabbalah, and many others. This present essay represents a slight deepening, insofar as it recognizes more sharply the psychological need for meaning. Other papers on this website speak to meaning and spirituality in other ways.)

The Decline of the Power of the Myths of Modernity

One of the more powerful religious traditions has been that of secular modernity, which affirmed a belief in materialism and progress, and associated these with science. For a while, this myth thrived, especially as the industrial revolution advanced and the benefits of progress seemed to outweigh the disadvantages. Beginning in the mid-late 1960s, though, there has been increasing disillusion with progress and modernity. The concept of “unintended consequences” and the problems of pollution, overpopulation, exhaustion of natural resources, increasing extinction of species, desertification, and, more recently, global warming, all have reduced the naive belief in science.

Science hasn’t begun to be able to evoke the changes in consciousness necessary to develop life styles that would be able to counter these ecological dangers—dangers more insidious and perhaps more dangerous than the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Science has brought into public discourse literally thousands of facts that can on one hand seem to overload and alienate people further; or, on the other hand, enriched nature can offer the foundations of a “new story,” a re-telling of the geological, biological, ecological, zoological, historical, and other story elements. The behavior (so-called) sciences are recognized as being capable of being used by wider cultural and political forces to support shallow and short-term goals, consumerist and exploitative aims.

Vocation has similarly been subject to stresses. It has become more difficult to aspire and attain high-status jobs. The competition is greater. Many of those jobs, in turn, have become less respected, less in control of their own work. The health professions, for example, have become subject to a broader economic system that turns professionals into “providers,” and demands efficiency, often to the cost of being more humane and personally sensitive.

Other roles have similarly been subject to dis-illusion, social critique, and various stresses. Mobility increases, loyalty of companies to their workers has declined, and it is common for people to change not just jobs but actual careers (or types of jobs) several times in a lifetime. The point here is that it may have become subtly more difficult to find one’s meaning in one’s work or career.

As a result, there has been a turn towards re-spiritualization, or at least a recognition that many issues in life cannot be reduced to rational formulas, nor subject to simple will. The trans-rational dimensions of love, meaning, responsibility, generosity, faith (in the sense of willed optimism), and the like are needed. Many have sought this corrective through the contexts of more traditional religions, others through non-traditional religions or belief systems.

Many—perhaps a majority—are stuck in-between. They may give lip service to a religion, but it doesn’t really play a significant meaning-making function in their lives. Many have been disillusioned by religion, for a variety of reasons. Most of these haven’t known about or bothered exploring other alternatives, or those alternatives they’ve encountered seem even more exotically absurd than the religion that they were raised with.

The functional religion in this world is that of consumerism, the unconscious worship of Mammon. Getting money, feeling the addiction of status, possessions, glamour, and the consuming of increasingly intense experience (loud music, high-fat-high-salt-high-carbs junk food, alcohol and drugs, “party” ethos, etc.)—these seem to be the “possession” experiences that give the illusion of “really living.” Alas, for may, a good deal of this life style is vicarious, caught up in magazines about celebrities, movies, video games, and again increasing intensity of horror, thrills, action, spectacle. Indeed, these sources do provide such pseudo-life illusions, but they also come crashing down as soon as money runs short, aging and fatigue or illness supervenes, and then the feelings of inarticulate guilt, shame, betrayal, vague anger, all swirl around a core of emptiness and meaninglessness.

The Matrix of Meaning

I realized, on reflecting on my childhood, that I had been unusually lucky in a number of ways—ways that many, probably most people have not been able to enjoy. Having a vibrant vocational choice that worked out, living in a relatively peaceful and optimistic era, naive to the problems of those on the margins, all allowed me to build a rich complex of positive associations to natural and phenomena. I grew up during an era of continuing enrichment of culture, and was able to partake of a wide range of spiritual, cultural and other connections that fostered a growing sense of meaning. But again, I’ve been impressed with the ways many others have not been so fortunate.

I imagined that I hadn’t had these anchors for my sense of meaning, and in so doing glimpsed anew at what others have suggested: People really need a sense of meaning, and they suffer when that experience has become too thin, diluted, fragmented, or mixed with dissonant input. In contemplating this problem, it occurred to me that meaning inputs may also be a kind of psychological nutrition.

(Dr. Eric Berne, the psychiatrist who in the 1960s wrote about his theory of Transactional Analysis and published a popular book, “Games People Play,” suggested that people need emotional “strokes” of positive social connectivity just as they need food or air or water. Meaning inputs may also be recognized in this way.)

My intuition is that people need a complex mixture of several thousands of items with deep emotional links. (More than a few hundred, less than a hundred thousand, I suspect.) If some elements are more emotionally rich in associations, a broader range is less needed. I think of this situation as being analogous to the way some trees have very deep roots while others grow with shallower but broader roots. If there is wind, trees with shallow roots can be blown over.

In the past, dogma may have been more necessary because there was a far narrower range of ideas and images to connect people with nature. Nowadays, there may be many more elements with which to construct a rich matrix of meaning. The challenge of science versus religion may not be just a matter of doctrine or rationality, but, in the spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message,” the real issue may involve the sheer mass of associations provided by the two realms.

Nowadays it is possible to connect with the Cosmos through a range of wondrous facts that people a few centuries ago couldn’t dream existed. The sheer vastness of astronomic space, of geologic and cosmic time, the many types of radiant energy in the electromagnetic spectrum and the pervasiveness of these energies, the richness and seemingly un-ending frontiers of the microscopic and sub-microscopic realms, the continuing discovery of life forms in these varied almost-otheworldy-realms, the complexities of biology, embryology, immunology, and other frontiers—all offer anchors for wonder that compete with the less plausible doctrines of ancient traditions. People are validly wanting a spirituality that can include these realities.

The Epistemological Shift

Happily, it is possible to provide such a shift. A few beliefs must be relinquished, or at least criticized. One is that reality must be knowable at a level of observable fact and rational coordination. This has been part of the myth of modernity. There was a time that love and faith, meaning and the like, all were still hoped to be solvable mysteries. This naive idealism has become tempered and deserves to be questioned. A lively alternative hypothesis would suggest that some domains of reality are not able to be known by rational or empirical means. The most obvious examples are the most prevalent: How can we cope with grief and loss? Rationality and science can not heal the sense of broken emotional bonds, to foster the most vivid mental health, to promote morale, to recognize the truth and genuine importance of such simple things as romantic, parental, filial, or communal love, the enjoyment of fantasy and cute stuff, the power of drama and story, and so forth.

Instead, we need to recognize that the trans-rational is a realm that is at least equal in value and importance to the rational, the mythic equals the factual, each has its own proper domains of application, but neither should be given dominion over the other.

In some contexts, the recent slang phrase, “whatever,” reflects a cop-out of intellectual responsibility. On the other hand, it also can express a surrender for a demand for tight agreement of belief. In this latter role, “whatever” is a mellow openness to community fellowship, tolerance, overlooking personal or doctrinal differences.


If meaning is an aggregate experience and a deep need, and also the range of elements that can serve to foster meaning has significantly expanded in the last century, then the way people relate to the world, their religion, may also change. I see these trends as unfolding in the direction of tolerance and inclusiveness, and away from the need to be anchored in fixed beliefs. People may indeed use certain images or ideas as anchor points in their own lives, but there is less of a need to require others to agree. The concept of a “preferred symbol system” can be respected without confusing it with the other domain of “factual reality.”

This epistemological dualism, of letting there be two ways to “know.” One is more related to facts and has a higher requirement for logic and a correspondence with consensually-agreed-upon facts. The other, concerned more with the sense of meaning, faith, and love, is less based on reason and more on experience, and that experience can include a wider range of imaginative, social, intuitive, emotional, subjective and experiential sources. Reason tends to be secondary in this trans-rational realm.

This dualism allows for the appropriate degrees of respect for both modes of relating to life, but does call for a development of wisdom in discriminating which modes should be more dominant in which situations. Some problems call for very scientific-technical-like thinking. Other situations, such as romantic small talk or play with children, invite an entertainment of fantasy and extravagant impossibilities. The place where they get more ambiguous is in the realms of ethics and politics. How much diversity is compatible with an optimal level of civility? The answer is clearly much more than people in the past believed possible, but our contemporary culture is testing the limits of this idea.

I hope these considerations can stimulate thought and discussion about faith, meaning, and philosophy in general.
Please email me and share your thoughts!