• Karl Thunemann


By Mary Strachan Scriver

People who think about North Americans and Euros and who work with what they call “religion” spend a lot of time worrying that if God is dead, morality will be destroyed, because to many people morality comes from authority figures telling you what to do.

This habit makes them vulnerable to charlatans with charisma or titles that they think gives them authority. People who obey such puppeteers are puppets — like the idea that God created people by making little figures from clay, toys. The value of learning the new understanding of humans presented by science is that we can build a new morality.

One aspect of this work is reviewing all the ways to arrive at rules for behavior: principles, experience, role models, rational thinking out consequences, attachments, allegiance to a subgroup and so on. These practices assume a human being is distinct and separate, making conscious decisions about what to do.

The expanding knowledge from science emphasizes the surprising extent of neurochemical relationship between family members, intimates, caregivers. and even across species lines to pets or livestock. Even to the tiny flora and fauna living in our guts and eyelashes and folds at joints. The world is not “other” but continuous — we are submerged. We are carried along on the tide. We listen to the stories of our culture.

Today things have an added dimension. We watch stories so vivid that they are our experience and get entangled with reality. I watch a lot of police procedurals that present social moralities, both conformers and defiers, according to small groups of writers in LA or Manhattan. The idea is to reflect on how successful and legitimate the stories can be.

On the news we are presented with other stories that affect us directly. Right now it is the conflict between the moralities necessary for sustaining our democracy versus the insidious morality of getting as much as you can for yourself. It’s going to take a long time to work through this. It would help if we had the same goal, some major super-magnet ideology that could align people like Christianity used to. Where do we find that?

No matter how refined or powerful our morality might be, the most human part of our abilities, the earlier mammal patterns, can still break through. Another problem is that so many moral choices appear in terms of money, it is the allocation of support in a materialist society replaces morality, so that many people have become convinced that they themselves are the primary consideration at the expense of the resource that is the planet. For example consider health issues or safety in our infrastructure from water systems to air pollution to bridges. Political budgets are structured by morality.


We are physical beings emergent from the substrate of the sea into separation by a skin that allows evolution inside to be concentrated by the pressures from outside the skin. Starting from microbes, we have expanded to become humans, but kept much of what we learned along the way. None of it was supernatural nor managed by some higher being, but rather kept emerging from the first helixes of DNA.

The mammal brain is wrapped in a thin laminate of tissue. Earlier mammals had three or four layers — humans have six. One of those layers appears to record and activate sensitivity to the six directions: compass points plus up and down — six because all creatures were in water at that point. The first animals needed this information so that they could pursue food and evade being eaten, but vegetation saved energy by being sessile, letting the water bring and take away. Thus, the earliest information systems persist in our own bodies today.

The “unconscious” mind is not an entity but a first system and process that is constantly moving to record through sensations all our experiences and thoughts strong enough to be experienced. The sensations are grouped in various ways, not anchored in separate points of the brain, and serve as indexes, so that a moment can be recovered to the consciousness through a rhyming sensation: a smell, a movement, a sound that makes it come back.

This unconscious, most of the brain’s work, runs the body, especially through the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic — aroused versus routine). Breathing, chemical composition of blood and tissue, excretion, digestion, circulation, are always going on, responding to the moment. Thoughts are directly shared to what we call “emotion” through the third vagus nerve directly from brain stem to the “portrait” — face, breathing, heartbeat, muscle tension, the basic five senses, skin capillaries, and so on. These manifestations of thought and “feeling” can be conveyed to other mammals who are observing, even through a video camera or a lie detection setup. This is called “empathy” and has the power to extend the mind and know what others know.

Not everyone is capable of empathy. It is learned in the process of gestation, birth, and the composition of the basic architecture of thought through experience. The structures of thought developed by the end of the third year, when the child is walking and talking, will organize the rest of the child’s life unless something really drastic happens on the scale or war or other life-threatening situation. This might be framed as a “morality,” which feels a bit like an instinct.

Morality is actually participating in the world, not a handbook for how to live, like the Bible or Koran. To be truly moral one must let the world through the skin into knowing and feeling, and then act in a way that protects the whole known realm. Not that this will always succeed but trying to understand how to help other beings and the planet itself will be met by others doing the same thing. Share understandings and this will be the religion, a fluid interface guided by what blooms and transforms.

No institution. No tithing. No need for a building, no need for clergy, but space for creation and thought.

Mary Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, MT.