Meeting spiritual needs naturally

Pantheist Paul Harrison explains how we are all capable of fulfilling our own need for deeper meanin

Atheists are best known for slamming traditional religions – especially Western monotheisms. In a similar vein, Pantheists may be just as critical about the consequences of dogmatism, acceptance of scriptural authority, intolerance, or the focus on imaginary worlds and beings.

We, however, tend to be more open-minded about the human need for “spirituality” of some kind. By “spirituality” I don’t mean anything supernatural – I mean our deepest feelings about values and meanings. It’s not just accident, folly or conspiracy that over 80 per cent of humans follow one kind of religion or another. Religions meet profound human needs - especially the needs for community, mutual support, a sense of place in the broad scheme of things, and therapeutic ways of dealing with pain, grief, anxiety and death. In today’s globalized, uncertain and increasingly threatening world those needs are stronger than ever - and that’s why traditional religions and new supernatural religions are resurgent.

Unfortunately, most religions sell their benefits at the cost of abandoning reason, denying evidence and often limiting legitimate human freedoms. Pantheists believe that you can get (almost) all the benefits, with none of the costs. Community support, with its attendant health benefits, is the easiest – any close social organization will give you that, regardless of what it believes.

Pantheism can’t relieve stress and anxiety by offering help from magic or from gods – but a running stream, the rustling of leaves in a forest, or a clear view of the Milky Way can place all our personal problems in perspective and give us inner peace, even euphoria. Meditation is a wonderful stress reliever for any faith or none – and can be experienced more deeply if you feel that your body is one with your mind, rather than some inconvenient distraction. The mystical feeling of oneness with everything is easiest to sense when you know that your body is, as physical fact, a part of everything.

Grief and death are hardest to confront. Most humans dislike the idea of personal extinction and oblivion. Naturalistic Pantheism doesn’t offer the promise of eternal life or reincarnation - nor the fear of hell or lowly rebirth. But for ourselves and our loved ones Pantheists can look forward to a more realistic “afterlife” – we know that we will persist in the genes of our families, in the memories of those who are touched by us, in the effects of our actions and creations, and in the recycling of our elements in Nature.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.