(Article is by guest writer Stefani Ruper.)
One of the most important components of a naturalistic worldview is the way that we look at who we are as a species. In the majority of cultures in history and in the world still today, the human being is conceptualized in terms of religion: either it is made in God’s image, as in Christianity, or it is an impermanent no-soul, as in Buddhism, or it is a part of a cycle of reincarnation, as in Hinduism, for a few examples.
But a naturalist studies what it means to be human with tools of psychology, the humanities, and, importantly, science.
Generally speaking, a naturalistic investigation into human nature teaches us that we are the way we are because of a mix of genetic and cultural factors. Each of us, in every moment, is a product of our evolutionary inheritances mixed with our personal contexts. Nature and nurture are in no way separate. They are deeply intertwined. We are each but one of billions of products of their massive and on-going dance.
As products of genes and culture, we as a species are not built for perfection. Evolution made us to survive, and there’s no rule saying that survival is necessarily fun or in any way pretty. We are not built to always be happy, to always be successful, or to always be at peace. We are also not built to always be good, or to always be whole. It is inherent to our nature as social and cultural animals to always live suspended between the good and the bad, and to all the while never be or feel perfect.
In various ways the world’s religious traditions have always had at their core a concept of human brokenness, often in the form of morality and sin, but also in other forms such as meaninglessness or suffering. They differ in their interpretations of what it means to be human, but they are each of them right in this: we are forever imperfect.
How do we cope with this? How do we deal with the realities of being human? How do we feel better and become better people in light of our genetic and personal histories—in a naturalistic frame? There are of course many ways, but one of the most important and powerful is the quest for self-knowledge. It is digging deep into who we are and what has made us that way.
Once we take a good hard look at why we are the way we are, we can pick apart the experiences and beliefs that make us tick in a certain fashion. This lessens their power over us. I like to call this process deconstruction. We can deconstruct the cultural and personal experiences that have caused us pain or brokenness. If we do this thoroughly, then we can have more success constructing positive beliefs and behaviors in their place. These positive beliefs of course have to coexist with the ghosts of negativity which never go away for good, but they can help us feel good and become stronger even amidst our on-going brokenness.
For example, I (and I know I am not alone in this) have always lived with a burning feeling that I need to be working all the time or else I am not worthwhile. The way I learned to overcome this was by gaining an understanding of the forces that made me that way. Genetically, it is perfectly human to experience self-doubt. Culturally and personally, growing up in a culture focused on productive work, being a middle child, and struggling with certain evaluations made of me in primary school were all factors that made me doubt myself in this particular way. I had to look deep into who I am and the naturalistic forces that made me that way. Once I did, I was able to slowly release the grip my fears and doubts had over me, and to construct habits and beliefs that foster peace in their place.
You can of course try to remediate whatever brokenness you carry with you without walking the path of self-knowledge. But if you did so, you would be going in blind. It would be like walking into a room and wanting to tidy it up, but not being able to find the light switch. You wouldn’t know what false beliefs to challenge or what strategies to pick up moving forward. You wouldn’t know what parts of you need healing, or what could be done to address them. You’d be fumbling in the dark.
Self-understanding is the light in our darkness. It is our hope. Human beings have for millennia lacked access to a basic understanding of what makes us who we are. Now we have some important starting points. We know that we are social animals. We know that we are highly affected by our environments. And we know that if we can figure out what troubles us, then we can work on addressing it. This is true for each of us individually, and it is true for us collectively, too. The more we know about ourselves as a species, the more empowered we are to become better.
Being human is not easy. It is in fact the hardest thing we know of to do. We are frail organisms who every day must live within and amongst our brokenness. But with a naturalistic understanding of what it means to be human, we have the ability to turn the lights on our darkness. This doesn’t make the darkness go away, but it does help us confront our limitations and learn what is necessary to manage them. In doing so we do not become perfect, but that’s not the point. The point is to live with and through on-going salvation, and to continually muster the courage to face and heal our wounds.
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Guest writer Stefani Ruper is a PhD candidate in Religion and Science at the University of Oxford. She is the host of The Meaning of Everything podcast, which explores insights into our biggest questions and problems in a naturalistic framework. She can be found on Instagram, on Facebook, or at her website.
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