Photo by Igor Kasalovic on Unsplash

Recently, in a period of three days:

  • I attended a talk by a visiting American priest, Father Christopher Collins SJ, “Seeking God in All Things: Spiritual Growth When Life Gets Hard”.
  • I listened to an interview, on ABC TV’s News Breakfast, with Michael Pollan, a writer and Professor of Non-Fiction Writing at Harvard, who is visiting Australia. His new book, How to Change Your Mindaddresses the developing world of psychedelic drug research and his experience in trying LSD.  He described having an out-of-the-body experience and how LSD could be used to treat depression and overcome the fear of death.
  • I read about the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing and how many astronauts experienced mental health problems on their return to Earth and how Buzz Aldrin, one of the two first human beings to walk on the moon, took Communion before he did so.
  • And I published a review of Professor Frank Furedi’s bookHow Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century”.

Were there any threads connecting these experiences?

All of them involve fear and our struggles to deal with this. All involve, in some way, our search for meaning in life. All refer to the unprecedentedly large increase in mental illness in our post-modern societies. All consider experiences of belonging to or being part of something larger than ourselves, that is an experience of transcendence.

One way in which they differ is whether or not the principal actor in each of the vignettes has a spiritual belief through which they view their personal identity – “who they are” – find meaning and purpose in life, and experience transcendence.

Let’s first look at some notes I took from Father Collins’ talk.

Speaking of Christians, he proposed that their most fundamental identity was to be “a child of God” and that this identity was conferred as a gift. I believe that experiencing a feeling that life is a gift is common among the vast majority of human beings, not just Christians, whether or not they are religious and, if they are, whatever their religious tradition: In this sense, we are all “children of God”, whatever we believe the nature of the “Giver of Life” to be, and this primary identity is a gift from the Creator, not an acquisition created by each of us. But, certainly, secularists would strongly disagree with me in this regard.

This idea that we don’t start from a tabula rasa to create ourselves is one way to express a very fundamental distinction between people with conservative or traditional values and people with “progressive” values. (I am using the categories “conservative” and “progressive” as shorthand oversimplifications of the collection of values each person holds, which are often on a spectrum between the two poles of “pure conservative” and “pure progressive” packages of values.)

Conservatives believe there are immutable Truths, including Truths about what it means to be human, and that “human flourishing” requires living according to those Truths. One such requirement is respect for our natural human identity. Conservatives believe that humans have such an identity, whoever or whatever they see as its source.

Progressives reject the claim that there are absolute Truths. They believe that respect for the natural has no standing as a basis for deciding what is morally good. The claim that it does is dismissed as the “naturalistic fallacy”.

Progressives’ mantra is “control; choice; change”. They take control of the natural by choosing a technological intervention and using it to change the natural. In doing so, they sometimes change the values that underpin respect for the natural and that this respect manifests. To be clear, I’m not claiming that we should never change the natural, but rather that we must be sure that the changes we make are ethical and justified.

Progressives believe that we construct our identity, that it can be whatever we choose, that we can change it and that we should change our cultural institutions and law in order to support our preferred identity stance.

Consider, for example: abortion; euthanasia; transgenderism; cloning humans; human embryo research; creating human-animal hybrids; transhumanism, and so on: they all assume that a natural reality – a natural human identity – does not require respect and can be overridden.

But while our most fundamental human identity might be a gift, is that all there is to forming our identity or is something more also involved? The words of Oxford University philosopher, the late Isaiah Berlin, in his book Four Essays on Liberty come to mind: “I am what I see of myself reflected in the eyes of other people”. Hermits aside, as intrinsically social beings, might we need relationships with others in order to fully develop our authentic human identity? And might that also sometimes be mediated through a third element?

Many years ago I saw a bench on a rugged cliff top in Port Elliott, on the coast of South Australia, overlooking the pounding waves in the Great Australian Bight. The plaque on the bench read: “Dedicated to our parents who in loving God and Nature loved each other”. Might this express a combination of the “gift” and the “construction” concepts of identity formation – the “conservative” and “progressive” approaches to finding our identity?

On this view, we are given a gift of fundamental human identity, but it is up to us to develop it through our relationships with others and those relationships might need to be mediated through a belief in something beyond ourselves. This idea of further development also means that identity formation is an ongoing process not an event.

Fr Collins proposed that the most radical statement one could make was “I believe in God”. This is probably true in post-modern Western societies, but it is not universally true. Around 70 percent of the world’s population say they believe in God. Even in Western societies a majority believe in God or a Spirit or some existing reality beyond themselves, yet many of them don’t perceive their spiritual beliefs as having anything to do with how they see their identity or vice versa.

There is an important difference, Fr Collins proposed, between the person who sees God as central to their identity and life, and the person who makes themselves central. Progressives are strong advocates of an overriding right to individual autonomy – “intense or radical individualism” — so could this emphasis on autonomy as the primary value be a factor in how they perceive their identity formation?  That said, perhaps what is common to both views of identity formation is that we, as human beings, cannot help but live and develop within a network of relationships, again hermits aside.

That brings to mind the tragic epidemic of loneliness that is being reported in our societies, especially among elderly people. Might the lack of contact and meaningful relationships with others that gives rise to loneliness be causing them to experience a disintegration of their personal identity? Or might they feel nothing more than a burden on the others with whom they do have contact? One of the three most common reasons for wanting euthanasia is “feeling a burden on others”.

And that leads to my next observation.

The current crisis in mental illness was a common theme. Fr Collins, who is an Associate Professor at St Louis University in Missouri, pointed out that there is currently an unprecedented and major mental health crisis in our societies – anxiety, depression, panic attacks, even suicide — even among students. Professor Pollan reports on exploring new ways to treat mental illness. The article about the “Moon Walk” noted that some of the astronauts had great difficulty adjusting mentally after their return to Earth and had a high rate of divorce. And Professor Furedi argues that fear has increased because, without a belief in God or some form of transcendent realm, people feel unprotected.

Might the loss of religion, or at least a widely shared one, and with that the loss of a “shared story” that we can all buy into to form the glue that binds us together as a society, and the adoption of intensely individualistic progressive values have had a role in causing this mental health crisis?

Might not only individuals, but also our societies have lost their identities and, if so, are having trouble finding new ones in a context of rapidly changing societal realities? Perhaps, non-inclusive language aside, this is a timely reminder of the words of John Donne from his ‘Devotions on Emergent Occasions’:    

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Finally, what impact might the extraordinary new science and technology, for example, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, human-machine cyborgs and so on, have on our capacity to find our identity and through that meaning and purpose in our lives?

In accommodating such mind and world changing developments in our lives, will we follow Fr Collins and rely more on spirituality? Or adopt Professor Pollan’s approach and deal with our anxieties and fears with psychedelic drugs? Or see Buzz Aldrin as a role model and use a combination of taking the risks and facing the dangers of our scientific advances and assuaging our fears through reliance on familiar religious practices? Or, as Professor Furedi suggests, might we just analyse the causes of our fears in order to overcome them? Those are topics for future pondering.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank a colleague and friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, for very valuable comments and suggestions for improvement of this article. The responsibility for its content remains entirely mine.

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia. 

Margaret Somerville is based in Sydney, Australia, where she is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine. At McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, she is Samuel...