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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Dogs, Love, Religious Faith – The Twisted Path of Personal Enlightenment

Even after decades of self-inspection, I can still be surprised by a sudden insight. I would venture that I’m not alone in this. Bear with me as I re-enact the twisted path I took to my latest discovery.

This most recent breakthrough came about in the usual, very roundabout way. It started with an article in the Atlantic that posited the behavior of man’s best friend is entirely driven by genetics. I found little in that article to make me rethink my knowledge of canine behavior, but it provoked further thought.


The article really pushed the idea that humans mistake a dog’s instinctive behavior as a form of love between dogs and humans. What the article didn’t mention is that science is beginning to show that many, perhaps all, forms of love are driven by brain chemistry. One study found a chemical basis for the love demonstrated by elephant mothers towards their young and another study showed a real bond between human couples that share the sex act.

This research is still in its infancy. While these feelings may be chemical in nature, they are still part of a greater whole. It is also possible that the chemical changes in the brain are caused by the emotions rather than the other way around.

This diary isn’t about brain chemistry or dogs. I mentioned the above to set the stage for the thought process I went through. When these thoughts came to mind, they were the first hints of a personal breakthrough.

As a dog-lover, I was instantly skeptical of the conclusions drawn by the author of the article. When I thought it through, I realized that part of that reluctance was driven by my poetic nature. A poet sees mystery and wonder in even the most mundane things. That thought led to another realization. No matter what science reveals about the actual mechanism behind love, I will always see it as something bigger and unexplainable.

The idea that there is something beyond the purview of science leads to another obvious thought. This must be exactly how religious believers reconcile scientific discoveries with their faith. That final small step in logic was a huge step for me.

Those of you who have read this far may be wondering why I even bothered to write about something so obvious. Yet, it is not all that obvious to those of us who don’t believe in a god or gods.

I have been an atheist since before I entered puberty. Many atheists, like me, have a hard time understanding how any intelligent person can believe in any of the established religions. Yet, here I am, like any true believer, ready to compartmentalize the findings of science and my belief in love. Never again will I doubt the sincerity of a religious believer who justifies their belief by saying you must have faith. I won’t share those beliefs, but I can share in a type of faith. I do that now when I think of love.

What seems like such a simple understanding is actually a great leap in understanding for me. It only seems easy because the leap was made in small steps – from dogs to love to poetry to religious belief. A lifetime of wisdom comes from such small steps.

Perhaps it is as Indries Shah wrote. “Enlightenment must come little by little – otherwise it would overwhelm.”


  1. That is a summation of so many of our discussions.  The enlightenment of how others of reason, rationalness and compassion can take a different view seems to always come little by little.  When the process is rushed it always seems to overwhelm itself.

    To the dog topic, as an extreme believer in our ability to understand the universe we live in (let’s just call it “science”), I’ve given much thought to precisely these topics.  “If we can understand every process, where does emotion/free will/consciousness lie?”.

    They lie in the fact that they exist.

    My dog loves me.  I love my children.  I choose to do things because I choose to do them and I am aware because I am aware.  Even if all of these things could be broken down into a discourse of the survival characteristics that selected for them and the ion-channels and chemistry that enable them, it wouldn’t change their existence in the least.

    They are.

    As a culture we are currently meandering into another phase similar to the scientific determinism discussions of a hundred years or so ago, and – mark my words – we will get bored with it and move on again in time.   As we understand a bit more about the biochemistry that occurs as we experience life we get lost in the causation argument – “did the emotion make the chemical or did the chemical make the emotion?” – which is fascinatingly boring.  We are diagnosing and prescribing for emotion in what will no doubt be seen in a few decades as the pure parallel of bleeding to cure cancer: a gross simplification of systems infinitely more complex than we were capable of understanding at the time.  And we will recall the fact that explaining them doesn’t make them go away.  

  2. spacemanspiff

    (or ever)


    (believe me, some of you guys have influenced my life in a very positive way)

    You make me think, you know?

    The experience shared on this blog (and it’s lessons) are something I couldn’t

    get anywhere else.

    Don’t know if what I wrote came out right.

    But what I mean to say is , thank you very much John  …

    … and everybody else I cheer — ;~).

  3. Hollede

    I have always found organized religion repugnant. I have learned to differentiate between religion and spirituality. I follow the religion of Holli and each of my awakenings have come through love. I have come to realize that love is the only constant in that religion. The more I send out the more I get back.

    It is very hard though, to keep feeling the love. We live in a brutal fucked up world and sometimes it is extremely painful to be so aware of our problems. If I did not have a faith in love and something (whatever it is) greater than me, I am not sure if I would be as sane as I am.

    The love I have for my family and my animal companions is huge. If I can take it further and feel this way towards people outside of my immediate circle it grows and comes back to me.

    Conversely, if I am an asshat and a jerk to others, this is what I get back.

    I remember hearing a bit on Prairie Home Companion or something such show. Garrison was talking about an old man sitting on a bench in front of a hardware store in anytown USA. A young couple approached him and asked him about the town as they were thinking about moving there. The gentleman responded by asking them where they are from and what it was like.

    The young couple responded with vehemence, “Oh, it’s an awful place! People are mean and unhappy and there is so much nastiness there.”

    The old man looked serious for a moment, and then said; “That’s too bad, this town is just like that. You wouldn’t like it hear, I am sure”.

    The next week the same old man was sitting on his bench and another young couple approached him and asked him about his town.

    The elderly fellow responded again by asking them where they were from and what it was like.

    The young people just gush with enthusiasm, “We love it and are so sad to leave, but our work is moving us here and we have to choose a new home. But will miss the town as everyone is so helpful and concerned and it is such a happy place.”

    The old man got a big smile on his face and said, “I am you will like it very much here! That is exactly what this town is like.”

    I think that we, other creatures, and the earth all share an energy. What we do with it, is up to us.

  4. GrassrootsOrganizer

    What any scientific inquiry into faith inevitably lacks is an open mind to true numinous experience.  Certainly many if not most spiritual experiences, perceptions or experiences can be explained away in any number of ways — coincidence, bias, selective observation, even the chemistry of the recently discovered “God center” of the human brain.

    Certainly religion is a human construct (and there is a strong case to be made for the necessity of it).  But I find it particularly narrow for a science-based argument against religion to be premised on the notion that if something can’t be measured, quantified, tested or proven it must not be real.  

    One can trace the evolution of every ritual and religious practice to a set of common roots and explain away much of what happens in the lives of the faithful to simple anthropological principles.  However, at the end of the day, after dissection of belief down to bytes and molecules, there remains the unexplainable.

    Some can choose to dismiss true numinous experience to not yet proven science; others can, with equal validity, attribute the unexplainable to God.  I find “faith” in logic and the strict behavior of materials as ungrounded as any other faith out there.

    In other words, if you haven’t felt the presence of God don’t simply assume those of us who have are deranged or deluded.  We might just be on to something.

  5. GrassrootsOrganizer

    That all too often “religion” is judged by the very worst of its manifestations — grasping televangelists, extremists kooks, bullies and exploiters, evil popes,holy wars, cruel traditions, backwards thinking,distortions, divisions and prejudice.  There seems so little attempt at balanced assessment, as biased and half-blind an assessment from the Left as one can expect in opposition from the religious Right.

    Religious practice, faith and tradition has undoubtedly brought more comfort and solace to mankind than any other human construct.  It has inspired much of our finest human creations and driven so many of our most noble narratives.

    The deeply faithful persons I know are nothing like the caricatures — they may cling to their religion, but not in any ugly or limiting way.  Their faith guides them to do GOOD, to think the best of others, to lead a peacemaking and admirable life. They practice the best of it and more or less abandon the worst of it.  And faith is the glue that holds them above bitterness and despair, that ameliorates their sufferings and brings them their greatest joys. And this is a bad thing?

    I think we’ve allowed the spectrum of spiritual practice and belief to be defined by false poles — sanctimonious zealots and amoral heathens.  Neither set belongs in any informed productive understanding of what faith really is to the vast majority.    

  6. great diary.

    just an aside – as i was reading this i was reminded the white bone about african elephants.  v. cool book – did you know that elephants live in a matriarchal society?

    anyway – love is like religious belief.  it requires faith, dedication and without them – can go horribly wrong.  also – humans generally mess both of them up 😉

  7. …and evolutionary psychology, in fact science writing it general. It’s such an antidote to writing fiction, psychology, and dealing with complex emotional political reactions on blogs. Science is a relief.

    But the thing about science, or the process of scepticism, is not that there is a simple determinate answer, but that you should be open to proof, and then open to it some more.

    I’m a great believer in love, but love is complicated, and can be self interested, and driven haywire by instincts and desires we don’t understand. I certainly have made some of my biggest mistakes because of ‘love’, and like Othello, I think it can be tragically misguided to “love not wisely but too well.”

    So I think you’ve made a leap here

    Science is beginning to show that many, perhaps all, forms of love are driven by brain chemistry

    Science doesn’t really say that, John. It says, for example, that oxytocin is a hugely powerful stimulus in the brain for bonding between mother and child, but it doesn’t say it drives that bonding. You might as well say that the bonding drives the chemical. It’s a powerful chemical signal, and has clearly evolved in humans to aid childrearing (the longest of all mammals) but I don’t see that we are determined by it.

    If we were determined by our neolithic evolutionary origins, then we wouldn’t be on this blog, and most of us probably dead by 45.

    Reading about genetics really helped me to understand some of my (male) impulses, and counter them when need be. Genetics and neuroscience provide information on predisposition, and since a lot of those dispositions are unwanted (disease, violent jealousy etc) we need the information in order to overcome them.

    So the laws of genetics are not determining us in a reductive sense, but like the laws of gravity, need to be understood in order to be compensated for and overcome.

    Without a comprehension of Newtonian physics we would have never learned aerodynamics and flight. The laws of gravity did not ground us. They helped us fly

  8. rfahey22

    I don’t think that there is a necessary conflict between understanding and appreciation.  That said, one could always argue that while science explains the mechanisms for why things are the way they are, science does not attempt to explain motive or purpose (you could say, “we were made to love, and this is how it works…”), and so reality will always have an element of mystery to it.  The claims of science are somewhat more modest than is commonly portrayed.  

  9. WashStateBlue

    As both a dog lover and a recovering Catholic, I smiled mightly at this diary.

    I remember one night getting into a arguement with my ex brother-in-law, a born again doofus, about why Dogs were going to be left behind in Rapture with us unbelievers.

    I thought that played heavily to the upside, trading fanatic evangelicals for puppies is a total win-win!

    I DO think we anthropromorphise our dogs, I read an article one time that said you will never understand a dog till you understand that unlike Humans, a dog has no concept of time units.

    The article stated a dog knows TWO time units only. Right now, and forever.

    When you leave your dogs, it’s forever. Doesn’t matter if it’s an hour or six months.

    When you come back, it’s the instant now, so they are as happy as if you left for a year.

    An interesting take on it, at any rate.

  10. Neef

    I’ve always believed that truly perceiving reality is very very difficult, the mental equivalent of a tightrope walk across complexity and nuance, where you can fall off into dozens of simplistic, dogmatic beliefs.

    Religion and emotion are two of those pitfalls, I think.

    It’s probably not a stretch to assume that most people have felt, on a gut level, what it’s like to be loved. Loved by a pet, a parent, a spouse, a child, whatever. I think it would be jarring and discordant for these people to consider that this love is simply a chemically induced reaction imposed on an entity that is inherently indifferent to them. Yet, of course, that view is consistent with a strictly reductionist critique of religion.

    Moreover, if we are restricted to only a thermomechanical view of the world, there is very little qualitative difference between a human and a Duracell battery. In both cases (to the best of our knowledge), chemical reactions result in electrical flows which makes shit happen. Yet we persist in believing not only that we are sentient, but that stars (for example) are not.

    If one defines supernatural as a level of reality apart from the strictly thermodynamic, then both Love and Mind are supernatural concepts layered on the substrates of chemistry and electromagnetism, much as a Sun God is a supernatural concept layered on the concept of a mysteriously rotating Earth. In effect, belief that your children love you (as opposed to being conditioned to certain neurochemical stimuli), or belief that there is a You, are religious beliefs.

    But what the heck – our best science tells us that we are 99% empty space, that the universe “ticks” in indivisible increments, and that between these increments Magic (or at least violation of physical law) can briefly happen. I’m not sure it’s really even possible to define “supernatural” anymore.

    Meanwhile a hug is a hug, he or she really does miss you, and that smile you just got is because you – You – brightened someone’s day. Who’s to say there’s no God in all that?

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