This post is a departure from my norm. It pertains in part to travel, but is mostly about the growth that I have experienced since beginning to travel. It is about breaking free of childhood prejudices, about the evolutionary psychology that motivates us, the religion that blinds us, and the philosophy that gives us an alternative. It all started a few weeks ago. I was over at a friend’s house and he asked me quite out of the blue if I had written down my life philosophy. It took me by surprise, and I answered no, I hadn’t. He looked at me with a little discontent and said that if anyone was to do it, I thought it’d be you. The subject soon changed and we forgot about it, but the question kind of stuck with me thinking back on the encounter. In part, my philosophy is contained in the novel The Beginning of Knowledge, and my travel philosophy can be found in the short creative nonfiction story Crimson Morning, which is available on the member page. However, I haven’t written a cohesive article that brings my ideas together plainly. I suppose I am somewhat reluctant to begin as my philosophy is constantly evolving. As life goes on and I read new books, travel to new places, and experience new things, my outlook on life changes. Thus, my philosophy changes with it.
I was born into a fairly orthodox religious family. I grew up through the 1990’s without a TV, Sega Genesis, Nintendo, Playstation, or most of the pop culture “things” that people grew up with in middle class Canadian society. However, I wasn’t sheltered. I went to a public school, and spent time at friend’s houses watching movies and taking turns playing those games that I didn’t get a chance to at home. At the time, I wanted to be like my friends and have the same experiences they had, however as I grew older I became proud of the fact that I spent more time outside on our farm than I did sitting around a TV.
We were a fairly self sufficient family. We grew our own vegetables in a garden, raised our own chickens and pigs, hunted meat for the table, cut firewood to keep ourselves warm in the winter and listened to my father read a chapter out of the bible every night after supper. I saw this as the wholesome, right way to live. For a long time, I debated joining their church. I knew my parents were sincere in their belief of their interpretation of the bible. I saw it in their eyes and their actions every day. I believed it too. It was all I knew. However, for several years throughout high school, I rebelled and got into minor scrapes with authority before entering the work force in earnest at 17, right after graduation. I landed an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker first, then after about eight months I started apprenticing as a power line technician with a local electricity utility. Trades are often a rough and tumble environment and for a few years philosophy and religion fell by the wayside as I became accustomed to my new job, house, and position in society. It wasn’t until a few years later that a friend of mine introduced me to the Tao Te Ching and then the works of Daniel Goleman, Scott Peck, Richard Dawkins, and Paul Bloom to name a few. The new found psychological insights awakened in me more questions than they answered and I had to pause and rethink my position on a lot of topics. At the same time, I began travelling. I visited Latin American countries where Catholicism is predominate, I visited Morocco where the population is nearly ninety nine percent Muslim, and I visited Thailand where the Buddha is revered as the preeminent example of morality. In all these places, I found the same thing. I found a population where culture and religion became intertwined, where faith was questioned by some, accepted by others, and whole heartedly embraced by most. Each religion had its own set of rules and customs, yet the basic principal remained the same throughout. Worship a deity by the prevailing name (God, Buddha, Krishna, Allah), conform, have faith, believe, and accept. It made me wonder if belief in a set of principals was merely a custom and a habit ingrained and passed down through the generations. I became aware through reading and observation of the irrationality that is present in the human psyche, a result no doubt the product of many years of evolution. The rational and irrational mind are constantly at war with one another, the impulsive irrationality often reacting before the rational mind takes over. There are many examples of this, not only in the real world but also in small thought experiments, something that Paul Bloom goes into detail with in his book Against Empathy. So through our rational minds we can become aware of our irrational selves, and we can take a step back and imagine Dawkins’ teapot floating around in outer space and choose either to believe or to dismiss it as folly. The catch is that a teapot has no consequence, whether it exists or not means nothing. However the existence of a deity has very real consequences should the story be true, and it seems that the one thing most religions can agree on is existence. But that leads us to the next question. If a deity does exist, which one is it? Each religion claims to have the secret to everlasting life and that no others can attain it but through their god and their religion. Maybe each religion is worshipping the same god, just under different names and with different customs. But if that were the case, shouldn’t peace be more prevalent and war not over religion? And if this all seeing, omnipotent deity controls our world outside of the realm of physics, what rational creator allows the atrocities that this world has seen throughout the ages between different sects of believers? If the problem lies in rationality, then it follows that this deity is irrational and thus not perfect. If the problem lies in our inability to see the rationale behind allowing atrocities, then I can only ask this: is a vengeful deity that permits and even orders unspeakable acts of terrorism and evil as shown in the Old Testament one worth following? In this way, religion plays on the irrational spirit within us, because our rational minds cannot comprehend the fantastic tales of miracles and creation. So irrationality then is at the center of religion.
Some subscribe to the outcomes argument in favour of belief, and say that should a deity exist, those that believe will have everlasting life and should a deity not exist then nothing happens anyway, so it is better to believe. This approach seems logical at first glance, but hardly carries the level of true worship that is necessary for eternal life in leading religions. So if religion is irrational and a deity unlikely, how should one live their life? Outside of laws designed to keep the social construct together, why should we not all be hedonists and self serving to get the most out of life that we can? That is up to you. As evolutionary beings, we made it this far by cooperation and by sacrificing the needs of the individual for the needs of the society as a whole. This is ingrained within us, even to this day. Through evolution, we can instantly see disapproval in the eyes of another person and it creates cognitive dissonance within, pressuring us to conform even from a very young age. It just doesn’t feel right. When something doesn’t feel right, it impedes our happiness. Thus hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure and self indulgence) can be found in serving others more than it can be found in hurting others for our own gain. As the early philosophers stated, the greatest good is something that helps both the individual and the community at the same time. However, things get murky when helping others is a detriment to the individual. You wouldn’t think twice about being a few minutes late for work to stop and call 911 at the sight of an accident, but you probably wouldn’t drive an hour out of your way to drop a can of food off at a food bank. The perceived hardship outweighs the benefit. Besides, you’d spend more in fuel than a can of food is even worth.
So I will break the idea down plainly. I feel that if I can do something to help myself and the community at the same time, it is my duty to do it, such as providing affordable housing that I profit from, developing a marketable product that solves a problem, or simply serving society through paid work. If I can provide something to the community that I don’t profit from, but that is also of little inconvenience to me, that too is my duty. Examples of this could include donating to a charity, volunteering a few hours here and there, and stopping to help people on the street. However there is no objective right answer when the hardship is equal to, or outweighs the benefit. These scenarios are entirely subjective and have a range of factors. Further, I would like to clarify what I mean when I speak of community. I am hesitant to use the term, “worldwide community.” In recent times, this term is associated with liberalism, free trade, and open door immigration. However, when I speak of community I don’t just mean the town that you were born in. I am speaking globally. Only by erasing country borders in our minds can we start to see people, not as Asian, European, African, or American, but as humans. When we see others as a human being, we are more likely to help them.
Above all, it is important to grow. It is important to continue to learn. It is important to see issues from another perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. The biggest service you can do for your community is to improve yourself. I don’t mean to be too hard on religion. I understand that people need something to believe in, something to cherish, and something to get them through the hard times. In those cases, the benefits of religion outweigh the detriments. But when we have people blowing themselves up in the name of religion, when we have religions that detract from science by forbidding birth control and harbouring sex offenders, when we have religions becoming synonymous with government and passing laws that enforce belief, when we have religions that claim to be superior to others based solely on origin of birth, method of worship, or colour of skin, we have a problem. We are all equal. There is no “chosen” race. There is no line in the sand where I end and you begin. If we see each other in this way, war becomes unnecessary. Be the change that you want to see. This is my philosophy. Love, peace, growth and understanding. Through travel, objective thinking, entertaining outside ideas, and a desire to learn, this is possible.
Jonathan Beam is the author of Crimson Morning - The Philosophy of Travel, available on the member page by signing up above. He is a blogger who writes about travel, adventure and philosophy. He has also written a novel that is currently under consideration to be published!