Sleep II: Glucose Intolerance and Hormone Dysfunction


My introduction to insulin will be important to understand before getting into today’s conversation. We will be discussing sleep, its affect on blood sugar levels, and its affect on serum insulin levels. If you don’t want to spend the five minutes reading the post on insulin, the most important takeaway is that insulin in a ginormous growth signal to the body. When insulin is present in the bloodstream, our ability to break down and burn stored body fat is blocked, while our ability to form and store new fat molecules is amplified. With that brief introduction, let’s dive in.

I don’t think anyone would argue that humans are incredibly diverse and adaptable. We live and learn to thrive in every environment the world has to offer (mostly). Adaptability is no more than responding positively to your environment. It is making subtle changes in your functioning to better facilitate your existence in that environment in the future. A prerequisite to being adaptable is the ability to sense your environment. Before you can begin to optimize outputs, you have to understand the inputs to the system. Sleep is a primary, pivotal, essential, etc., etc., input to our body functioning. The duration and quality of our sleep each night sends a truckload of data to our body. And being the adaptable creatures we are, our system processes that data and makes compensatory psychologic and physiologic changes. One of the huge levers our body can manipulate in response to this input of data is hormonal and metabolic functioning. If you remember from Sleep I, short sleep induces higher levels of ghrelin (a hormone associated with hunger) and lower levels of leptin (a hormone associated with satiety). These changes in chemical concentration lead to an overall subjective feeling of increased hunger. Today’s topic fits right along side this increased sensation of hunger. When we do not get adequate sleep we become less glucose tolerant. Meaning our blood sugar stays elevated for a longer time after eating, as do our levels of insulin. Short sleep leads to more insulin spending more time in our bloodstream.

In this small study participants were put through two different sleep regiments. Initially they were restricted to four hours in bed per night for six nights, and then allowed 12 hours in the bed for the next seven nights. In each condition they they were subject to a glucose tolerance test while also having their insulin levels measured. During the sleep restricted condition, there was a clear impairment of carbohydrate tolerance. Injected glucose was cleared from the body 40% slower after sleep restriction. They also measured the acute insulin response to be 30% lower in the sleep-debt condition. Glucose effectiveness, a measure of ability to dispose of glucose independent of insulin, was also 30% lower in the sleep debt condition. The combination of these outcomes would certainly lead to prolonged blood sugar elevation, and these differences in glucose tolerance are very similar to those seen in a non-insulin-dependent diabetic male compared to a normoglycemic male. Lastly, the researchers also measured glucose levels and insulin response to a 60% carbohydrate meal; opposed to the IV glucose injection which the above results were in reference to. They measured the increase in peak glucose after eating breakfast was higher in the sleep restricted state. However, peak glucose measurements following lunch and dinner did not differ much between the sleep states [1]. This is certainly no evidence of causation, I simply want to point out that there seems to be some level of hormonal and metabolic dysfunction in response to sleep restriction.

In this study researchers were investigating if sleep restriction impairs insulin signaling. In order for insulin to exert its effect at a cellular level, it first binds to a receptor on the outer membrane of a cell. This binding initiates a cascade of events (molecules tagging other molecules, turning them on) eventually resulting in the body’s ability to move glucose from the bloodstream into the cell. The researchers were able to measure a specific molecule in the insulin pathway (phosphorylated Protein Kinase B, aka pAkt) in order to assess insulin sensitivity of individuals in a sleep deprived state and in a well-slept state. They measured the concentration of insulin that was required to stimulate pAkt to adequate levels. In an insulin insensitive state, the amount of insulin required to reach this level of pAkt stimulation would be higher. In this experiment the participants were subjected to four and a half hours in bed to achieve the sleep deprived state versus eight and a half hours in bed to create the well-slept state (four consecutive days in each state). In the sleep deprived condition the amount of insulin required to elicit the desired pAkt response was 3-fold higher [2]. Another significant manifestation of hormonal disruption after short sleep.

There are many more studies out there, but I like to keep these posts relatively short. It is fairly obvious that there is some level of hormonal dysfunction that occurs after less than a week’s worth of inadequate sleep. Admittedly these studies are small, but we have seen some level of evidence for disruptions to ghrelin, leptin, insulin, and glucose tolerance. So for a quick summary of what we have covered so far: short sleep causes you to feel more hungry and less satisfied after a meal. You then have a decreased ability to deliver glucose from your bloodstream into your cells, elevating your blood sugar for a longer period of time. You also have a decreased response to insulin, further inhibiting your ability to remove glucose from the bloodstream and increasing the overall amount of insulin in your body throughout the day. There is certainly some level of a runaway feedback loop here, as prolonged blood sugar elevation further increases the demand for more insulin secretion. And remember, when you have high levels of insulin circulating, you cannot break down fat, but you can certainly build it.

My concern is not with the 40% slower glucose clearance the day after cramming for an exam or finishing a big project. I am concerned with what happens after 25 years of consistently getting 4-6 hours of sleep. What happens when endocrine dysfunction becomes our normal? What happens when our body is forced to adapt to metabolic conditions it would have only seen in the most stressful times in pre-historic life? Of course we will never know a definitive answer to these questions, but when you are dealing with something as ubiquitous as chronic disease, I naturally look at things equally ubiquitous, i.e. sleep, as possible culprits. The idealized, “I can sleep when I die,” needs to go, or those who believe it will surely meet that end sooner than they should have.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 6/5/2020

See Sleep I: An Evolutionary Imperative


[1] Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet. 1999;354(9188):1435‐1439. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(99)01376-8

[2] Broussard JL, Ehrmann DA, Van Cauter E, Tasali E, Brady MJ. Impaired insulin signaling in human adipocytes after experimental sleep restriction: a randomized, crossover study. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(8):549‐557. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-8-201210160-00005

Growth of the Human: How Insulin Works



  • insulin is a hormone secreted to lower blood sugar levels
  • insulin is a body wide signal for growth
  • high levels of insulin promote the storage of energy in the form of glycogen and triglycerides (fat)
  • high levels of insulin BLOCK the breakdown of fat
  • insulin is affected by type of food, timing of food, exercise, sleep, and many other lifestyle factors

Insulin is one of the most important molecules in our body. Remember that hormones are molecules secreted by one part of the body in order to communicate a message to another part. They are able to relay information through the bloodstream, allowing systemic responses to certain environmental conditions. Blood sugar is one of the most tightly regulated parameters in our body, as we run into serious problems with both high and low blood sugar levels. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas when elevated blood sugar has been sensed. Although insulin is one of our body’s primary tools to keep our blood glucose (sugar) in check, it is not a master tool. Insulin only acts to lower blood sugar levels. Typically in response to eating, our blood sugar levels rise. This is when insulin is excreted from the pancreas into the bloodstream. Once insulin is flying around our blood vessels, it starts screaming its message to all the cells it comes into contact with, and its primary message is: Energy is available! GROW, STORE ENERGY, and GROW MORE!

Throughout all levels of biology, a primary task of the organism is to sense energy availability. In the evolutionary world, energy was always hard to come by, so the ability to detect available energy was a crucial advantage that essentially all organisms developed. It would be a catastrophic failure for an organism to try to grow and divide while resources were scarce, and it would be an equally fatal mistake for the organism to fail to grow and store energy when the resources were available. As it turns out, the molecular switches that control this decision of anabolism (building) versus catabolism (breaking down) are often central to our health and longevity. There are a handful of these high level decision makers in our body, but today’s post will focus solely on insulin.

First we must keep in mind the big picture: when insulin is in the blood, it is a body wide signal for anabolism or growth. From here we can zoom in on some of the details of insulin’s action. As we mentioned above, a primary task of insulin is to lower blood glucose levels. When insulin comes into contact with muscle cells and fat cells, it induces a specific effect, essentially unlocking the cell for glucose entry. When a muscle or fat cell grabs (binds) a molecule of insulin from the bloodstream, a cascade of events is set off inside the cell. The end result of this process is the the insertion of the GLUT4 transporter into the cellular membrane of a muscle or fat cell. A quick digression on cellular membranes; these are structures that form the boundary of cells and organelles (smaller structures inside of cells). The membrane is the outer layer controlling what comes in and what goes out. If the bloodstream is a superhighway connecting the different parts of our body, the membranes completely control who is allowed to exit the highway and enter the city (cells). Back to insulin. So insulin binds to the fat or muscle cell, resulting in GLUT4 transporters being shoved into the cellular membrane. The GLUT4 transporter essentially acts like a very specific claw, searching the bloodstream for molecules of glucose, grabbing the glucose from the bloodstream, and transporting it inside the cell. Without GLUT4 transporters in the membrane, glucose cannot enter the cell, and it simply remains in the blood. This is a primary action of insulin. Recruit GLUT4 transporters to the surface of fat and muscle cells, allowing glucose to enter the cell and reduce the amount of glucose in the blood.

This is only the beginning of the effect of insulin. We have brought glucose, single molecules of sugar, into the cell. However, this is about creating stable, usable forms of energy, so getting energy into the cell is just the first step. The cell still needs to convert these singular sugar molecules into a form of energy that can be stored long term. As we already stated, there is a deep, hardwired desire for the organism to capitalize on available energy and prepare for a day when that energy is not accessible. We convert glucose into two energy forms that are better suited for storage: glycogen and triglycerides. Glycogen is essentially a bunch of individual glucose molecules strung together, creating a single, larger molecule. This certainly helps for storage, but it also retains functionality as glycogen can be broken down into usable forms of individual glucose molecules quickly. The primary issue with glycogen is that we run out of space. Each cell can only hold so much glycogen, and when the reserves are filled up, the remainder of the glucose is used to create triglycerides. Triglycerides are the body’s best and most efficient way to store large amounts of energy. These molecules are compact, energy dense, while also retaining the ability to be broken down into usable forms of energy. Triglycerides are colloquially referred to as fat, and most of us can see the abundant stores of energy we carry around our waist.

This system of energy acquisition and storage at the cellular level is quite impressive and sophisticated. It truly highlights the body’s ability to adapt and respond to dynamic environmental conditions. But the world we live in today is much different than the world in which these systems were developed. With our basic understanding of how insulin works to pull glucose into the cell and create stable forms of energy, we will now turn to how this might be problematic in our modern life. Just as we have systems to build and store energy, we of course have systems to break down those stored forms of energy. We have processes that break down glycogen and triglycerides into molecules that can fuel our energy demanding cellular processes. However, because we have these opposing processes (anabolism versus catabolism, or storing energy versus using energy) our body has to know which protocol to run. If we are manufacturing triglycerides to store energy, it would be counterproductive if the cell next door was breaking down its triglycerides to use for energy. Once again, this is a situation our body has developed protection against. Remember what insulin’s primary message is: energy is available, grow and store energy. So not only does insulin provide a pathway for energy into the cell (GLUT4 transporter), it blocks and amplifies certain other processes inside the cell. We have discussed how insulin stimulates the building of fatty acids (energy storage in the form of fats), but the presence of insulin also blocks the cell’s ability to break down fat stores, aka insulin blocks lipolysis. This of course is the outcome of a highly intelligent system, but it certainly promotes issues for our modern lifestyle. WHEN INSULIN CONCENTRATION IS HIGH, YOU CANNOT BREAK DOWN FAT STORES. A similar process is at play with glycogen. When insulin concentration is high, the breakdown of glycogen is blocked, and the formation of glycogen is amplified. This all fits under our big picture of insulin. Insulin is a body wide signal for growth, and in turn, a body wide signal to suppress utilization of previously stored forms of energy.

Even with this basic understanding of insulin, it should be obvious that insulin levels are vitally important for anyone concerned with losing weight. As the weight we should want to lose is in the the form of triglycerides, and those triglycerides cannot be burned in the presence of high levels of insulin. I realize there is not much practical information here, or tips on how to actually utilize this information in our daily lives, but understanding this background biochemistry is fundamental to a sophisticated approach to weight loss and health in general. On this landscape we can explore how certain foods effect insulin levels, the fact that calories are NOT created equal, how movement can be leveraged to help with blood sugar control, how the timing of a meal directly affects its metabolic outcomes, how sleep is intimately connected to insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, and many other processes. There are so many pathways that all hinge on the metabolic control switch of insulin. Stay tuned for ideas on how to structure our lives in accordance with the biochemistry that governs our cellular processes.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 6/2/2020

Sleep I: An Evolutionary Imperative


I think sleep is a crucial part of maintaining health. It is an insurance policy that is too good not to participate in. This will be the first in a series of articles discussing sleep and its importance to our overall well-being. Some of this can be considered anthropomorphizing and certainly hypothesizing, but we learn through stories. So if you would indulge for a story about sleep….

Travel back to our days as hunter gatherers. The rhythms of our day completely controlled by the light and dark cycles orchestrated by our rotation about the sun. As the sun slides down the horizon, it becomes much harder to find food. And in this ancient world of incredible competition for calories, our energy would almost always be best used in search of food. Therefore, when our ability to find food is limited, it would be beneficial to conserve our energy until we are in a situation that can leverage our unique tools developed for calorie acquisition, i.e. day time vision. From this very basic pattern of light and dark, along with a perspective of calorie conservation, we might develop two different modes of being, one of activity, and one of rest and repair.

That being said, sleep’s ability to withstand natural selection is nothing short of a miracle. Sleep is seemingly juxtaposed to many of the behaviors we know to facilitate the passing of our genes into future generations. When we sleep, we are not looking for food, we are not eating food, we are not having sex, we are not looking for a mate, and we are incredibly vulnerable. These are not trivial facts, they are pillars of what we know to be necessary for procreation. So how does something that fails to directly help us in these pursuits, while also making us the most vulnerable of prey, become so prominent in essentially every animal species on this planet? Ockham’s Razor would simply tell us that the benefit must outweigh the harm. Over the long experimental testing grounds of time, mother nature has weighed and measured sleep, and it has proven to be of essential utility. Sleep’s persistence proves its profits exceed its costs. By understanding the magnitude of what we give up through sleep (eating, sexing, security, etc.), we may begin to understand the value we receive through sleep. It simply has to be greater than or equal in value or sleep would not have proliferated.

We don’t know what all the benefits of sleep, and I’m not convinced we ever will. The system-wide effects of something like sleep are hard to tease apart in the discretizing manner demanded by modern science. However, it is being researched more and more and we will be able to increasingly understand the pieces of its puzzle. Our body is able to synchronize different processes through oscillating hormone levels. Throughout the day hormone concentrations rise and fall, creating a rhythmic balance for our cellular operations. There are numerous hormones, and they all have different effects. For example, melatonin ideally starts to increase in the evening, peaks in the middle of the night, and remains low throughout the day. The cyclic variation of hormones act as a internal clock, sending information throughout the body and allowing for different parts of the body to work towards common goals.

Two specific hormones I would like to discuss here are leptin and ghrelin. When discussing biochemistry, we will have to settle with some simplification. Keep in mind when people say something like “melatonin is the sleep hormone,” there is probably a good amount of truth to it, but there is also a vast complexity going on in the background. So while melatonin is certainly involved in sleep/wake cycles, its role is much more complex.

Leptin is a hormone primarily made by adipocytes (fat cells) and enterocytes (small intestine) that signal satiety. It is a huge part of that “full” feeling we get after eating a meal. Ghrelin is a hormone produced by your gastrointestinal system, closely correlated with our sensation of hunger. These two hormones have opposing effects, and are largely involved in appetite regulation. For example, ghrelin is often at its highest concentration before a meal and at its lowest levels after eating. The opposite is true for leptin, as its concentration is highest after eating.

Let’s look at how these hormones are affected by sleep. One of the most common ways to study something is to remove it, and then observe or measure the effect of its absence. Many studies have shown that when we are sleep deprived, the circulating levels of these hormones are changed. One study took a small group of participants and took them through two different scenarios. In the first part of the experiment the participants underwent two days of sleep restriction, then had blood levels of ghrelin and leptin measured, along with a subjective assessment of hunger. These same participants where then later allowed two days of extended sleep, and the same measurements where recorded. The study showed that after sleep deprivation, levels of ghrelin increased, levels of leptin decreased, and subjective hunger was increased [1]. Another study looked at a much larger cohort of patients over a longer period of time. Here they showed that short sleep duration was associated with higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin, independent of BMI, age, sex, and other confounding factors [2]. In this review article, researchers looked at the body of evidence regarding sleep loss and its effect on neuroendocrine and metabolic function, concluding short sleep is associated with an up-regulation of appetite, lower leptin levels, and higher ghrelin levels [3]. There are numerous other studies out there, and there seems to be a strong general consensus that shortened sleep is associated with lower leptin, higher ghrelin, and increased feelings of hunger. Obviously this is a bad combination for anyone who is concerned about their weight, and an extremely difficult situation to overcome if one is trying to lose weight.

Allow me to step back from the science, and return to our hunter gatherer ancestors to try and tell a story. I do not think it is a huge leap to assume that sleep was something we engaged in every night, and something we rarely sacrificed. If not for any other reason than our gift of vision was severely limited without the light of day. However, I can imagine at least one scenario when we would sacrifice sleep. Those nights when we were on the verge of starvation, when we had gone many days without food. At that point we had no other option but to continue moving in search of food, or at least significantly shorten the time we spent asleep. So if we were on the search for food, bargaining sleep for more exploration time, how might our bodies help us? We would be at a huge advantage if our appetite was tuned for high caloric intake. That way if we managed to finally come across food, we could fully take advantage of the available calories. We would not want to be forced to stop eating because we felt “full.” In this situation it would be a great development if in response to short sleep, our body increased its signal for hunger, and decreased its signal of satiety. Increased ghrelin and decreased leptin, in order to increase our appetite and ability to intake large amounts of calories. Shortened sleep would increase the instinctual drive to find calorically dense food.

Of course this is not science, the evolutionary story may or may not be true. However, viewing things through and evolutionary lens allows us to expand our thinking to why things might work as they do, and I certainly remember things better in story than factual bullet points. So take the evolutionary part with a grain of salt, but the elevation of ghrelin, reduction in leptin and overall increase in hunger in response to short sleep is well understood. If you or anyone you know is struggling with their weight, sleep is an essential first pillar to attack. Leptin and ghrelin are only part of this story. Short sleep also impairs glucose tolerance and causes other hormonal imbalances. Diet and exercise are what people often jump to when discussing weight control, but I would argue sleep should be the first stepping stone. Without prioritizing sleep you will be fighting an uphill battle. Stay tuned for further exploration of sleep’s wide ranging effects on our health.

Best explorations


[1] Spiegel K, Tasali E, Penev P, Van Cauter E. Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Ann Intern Med. 2004;141(11):846‐850. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-141-11-200412070-00008

[2] Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004;1(3):e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062

[3] Van Cauter E, Holmback U, Knutson K, et al. Impact of sleep and sleep loss on neuroendocrine and metabolic function. Horm Res. 2007;67 Suppl 1:2‐9. doi:10.1159/000097543

-Ryan; 6/1/2020

Consciousness: Through the Lens of Split Brain Experiments


Where are you? That thing that is the doer, where is that located?

Our brain is divided into to hemispheres, left and right. These hemispheres are connected through a bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. This structure allows for information exchange between the two halves of our brain. This, it turns out, is very important as the individual hemispheres of our brain complete separate tasks, then share the information with the other half. The specific tasks that are carried out by each hemisphere are conserved in most people. That is to say, there are some exceptions to these rules, but the work is typically divided the same way across different peoples. As a brief example of this, examine the figure below.

This list could be longer and more detailed, but the important distinctions are: each hemisphere receives different visual inputs, controls different sides of the body, and that speech and language are confined to the left hemisphere.

A treatment for the most severe and uncontrollable epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum. This is a last line measure (no response to anti-seizure medication and other treatments) to limit the spread of the electrical activity of epileptic seizures. While cutting the corpus callosum did not completely stop the seizures, it relegated them to the half of the brain they originated in, no longer being able to spread to the other hemisphere via the corpus callosum. I will leave the ethics of this procedure for others to debate, but to the impartial observer, this procedure shed light on some peculiar aspects of consciousness.

Let’s walk down the logical progression of cutting the corpus callosum. No communication, no information exchange between the two hemispheres. Each hemisphere only receives visual input from one visual field. For those that are unaware, if you stare at a dot in the middle of the screen, images to the left of that dot are located in your left visual field, and vice versa. Therefore, observing a word in the right visual field goes to the left brain. This means the person could say the word out loud, as the speech and language centers are also in the left brain. They would also be able to move their right hand if, for instance, they were asked to draw the word presented to them. So far, pretty normal. Now, let us walk down the path of presenting a word to the left visual field. The visual input is sent to the right hemisphere of the brain. When asked what word was shown, the patient says nothing. The visual input, stored in the right brain, has no pathway to the speech and language center in the left brain. The patient cannot represent the information in words or speech, as these two pieces of informations are located in opposite hemispheres, unable to communicate. However, when asked to close his eyes and draw with his left hand, the patient is able draw a picture of the word. I recognize this probably sounds very confusing. Watch the video below for a visual explanation.

Split brain behavioral experiments

So with this basic physiologic understanding, let’s jump to the fun part, its implications for consciousness. For this discussion it may be helpful to invoke a particular definition of consciousness. In the words of philosopher Thomas Nagel, “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” This assertion is made in his paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” For example, as soon as we say, “if I could perceive via echolocation, I would understand how a bat negotiates its surroundings,” we assign some level, or type, of consciousness to the bat. It has consciousness because there is something that it is like to be the bat. This definition of consciousness is a decent starting place. While it does not violate any of my intuitions, or directly contradict my developing notion of consciousness, it does not offer much insight either. The obvious thing we must extend from this definition is that consciousness is no one thing. You and I can both be conscious, as can the bat, but there are clear and obvious differences between these incarnations of consciousness. There are levels to the game, so to speak. This goes against the materialist and rationalist tendency to discretize and demand a concrete form of things. Through this definition we are clearly allowing consciousness to take on different forms, while also retaining some element of commonality. In my own interpretation of this idea, consciousness is the awareness of what it is like to be.

Back to the split brain experiments. If we apply the above definition of consciousness to the split brain patient, we are forced to assign individual consciousness to each hemisphere of the brain. As seen in the video, when shown different words in each visual field, the cognitive processes are distinct. The left hemisphere knows the he visualized a hammer, while the right hemisphere knows he visualized a saw. Both are 100% correct, both are 100% convinced of their perceptions, and both are completely unaware of the other.

What does this do for our understanding of consciousness? For me, it shows that consciousness is differentiated from the body, while also being dependent upon it. It is detached, but receives input from the body. I visualize it as a little entity floating right above my head. It takes inputs from inside the body as well as outside, welds them into a coherent story, and then poses as the all mighty conductor of volition. It incorporates all the stimuli of the senses, the inner psychic drives and images, our history, our place in the group, our place in society, our direct environment, possible future outcomes, and possible ramifications of those outcomes. A complex data mining, data combining, and narrative building machine.

So when we split the brain, the direct bodily inputs of consciousness obviously change. It is clearly like something to be the experience of the left brain, and clearly like something completely different to be the experience of the right brain. When we split the brain, we create another instance of consciousness. We introduce another way to be, and consciousness is there for its interpretation. For it is always there, always a level removed from direct perception. Thinking about split brain as a splitting of consciousness may be a helpful visualization, but in reality we aren’t splitting consciousness, it is just there, aware of whatever inputs are available to it.

I would like to close with a bit of a thought experiment. As this post was started, where are you? That thing that is the doer, where is that located? Before I really started thinking about consciousness I would have immediately answered that question: I am in my head, of course. My thoughts have drastically changed since.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 5/16/2020

Subscribe for updates as we journey through consciousness


Sleeping With Jesus and Darwin

I grew up in a religious home. Do not take that to mean I was religious. I went to church because my mom made me. I was not exactly waking up cheerful and proper on Sunday morning, singing harmonies of Amazing Grace. We didn’t go every single week, but I was exposed to many of the common teachings of today’s non denominational Christian church. And I at least knew enough to be completely turned off when I was exposed to science in high school. How was I supposed to believe some dude died and CAME BACK TO LIFE three days later, all to somehow save mankind? How was I supposed to believe God created literally everything when I had learned about Darwin’s theory of evolution and selection? And the fact that none of these contradictions were even broached in church really turned me off. The church goes on acting as if many of the things they preach are not in direct opposition to hard science. These contradictions were not spoken of – more or less tucked away in the DO NOT DISCUSS category. Surely, if you ignore something long enough it will just go away right? 

One of the things that bothered me most as a kid was the extreme geographical bias of the great savior Jesus. Was I simply lucky to be born in the blessed holy land of the southern United States where Christian churches were on every other street corner? What about the billions of people born around the world who will never be exposed to the Bible, Jesus Christ, nor ever see a church? Did the great forgiving savior simply forget about those billions of people? Were they sentenced to Hell simply by virtue of birth location? That didn’t strike me as a great strategy by the almighty one. It was also not difficult to see that many of the religions shared a great majority of their teachings. Sure they were dressed up in different words and practices, but they seemed to almost be coming from the same source. If my God was teaching the same principles as your God, should we not go to the same Heaven? Unfortunately the dogma and traditions of religious institutions seek to emphasize distinctions rather than embrace the many of qualities connecting the world’s religions. 

My largest stumbling block was the manner in which the Bible or Christian stories were taught to me. They were taught as objective truths. God did create the entire world in 7 days (or whatever), and Jesus did in fact come back to life after being crucified and killed. The basic theory of evolution I was taught in high school clearly contradicted the truth of creation I was taught in church. But factual contradiction was not the the only problem here. I was forced to entertain the idea hypocrisy. How can one assemble a tome espousing the virtue of truth and honesty, when the first book on the creation of the world is a blatant lie when interpreted literally? At this point I was not aware of the metaphorical and metaphysical truths actually being described by the creation story. I did not have that belief structure because the idea of the Bible as metaphorical truth was never discussed during my time in church. From the viewpoint of the dogmatists and traditionalists of institutionalized religion, claiming a metaphorical truth would be the largest surrender and step backwards possible, so I understand their predicament. I could go on with the problems I was finding in the teachings of the Christian church, but these illustrate the point clearly enough. These sentiments generally sum up my spiritual position from high school up until about 1 year ago (I’m 26 now).

“The power of moral prejudices has penetrated deeply into the most spiritual world, which would seem to be the coldest and most devoid of presuppositions, and has obviously operated in an injurious, inhibiting, binding, and distorting manner.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

I never had a feeling of contempt or disdain towards those who considered themselves religious, or believers. In fact, I admired those people. Not only because they were generally good people, but because it was evident that religion was this intricate connecting fabric of all peoples. I went to engineering school and was surrounded by people who were technical, science minded individuals. Many of my classmates were religious and seemed to have no problem building a career based on science while also believing that a man rose from the dead. I don’t know if these people were living their lives with some form of low grade cognitive dissonance, or if they were spiritually advanced to the level of holding paradox and understanding deep metaphor (I would have to guess the former based upon my experience with religious teachings). Anyways, I suppose I always had a deep respect for religion even if it I didn’t understand it or believe it. 

Over the last year my views have changed rather dramatically. Or perhaps, they have simply come full circle. I became very interested in the ideas that lay under religion, those common threads. This led me to Jospeh Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) which led me to Carl Jung (multiple books), while previously being influenced by the metaphysical ideas of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), and Don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements). Over the many months of these readings, I eventually realized they were all talking about the same thing. Each, through a different perspective, attempting explanations of the divine – that force or essence connecting all things, that is all things. The thing that gives rise to religion. 

The fundamental problem with teaching religion is that God is all things. Therefore, when you speak about God, you are always making some sort of abstraction. Words can be classified as denoting substance, activity, quality, or relationship. For example, dog and human would belong to the category of substance, he runs or she jumps would belong to activity, dark and light would belong to quality, and lastly, having wealth or status would belong to the category of relationship. The idea of God does not fit into one of these categories, for it is all things. God is ineffable by nature, words are no more than partial descriptions. This is the fundamental reason why we must look to religion as teachings of metaphorical truths rather than concrete, objective, or historical truths. The fact that words unfailingly recoil from the idea of God demands a deeper interpretation than simple historical fact. When one views religious teachings as metaphors, the room for development and spiritual growth is magnified. Dogma feels this as reduction, when in reality, this opens the door to the infinite. 

This understanding creates plenty of room for both Darwin and Jesus. The genes that are the units of selection for Darwin’s theory have been through innumerable events of birth, death, and re-birth, just as the followers of any religion have been. Science and religion are not diametrically opposed. They are two distinct lenses through which one can gaze upon reality. They are both tools capable of fantastic dynamism, growth, and innovation. Both able to generate insights into our existence, and quite possibly into our purpose. When the western scientific approach seals its walls to religion, it is limiting its possibilities and trapping creative minds. It is quite literally placing bounds on what is possible. If we limit science to only that which we currently understand, we will not be able to meet the demands of our world. We must be willing to leap into the unknown, and we must reward those bold thinkers, nay, bold adventurers. When religious institutions rely on dogma and tradition to spread their message, they are alienating future generations and severely limiting the profound spiritual wisdom of our ancestors. They are acting as a reducing valve to an unfathomable beauty and source of insight and creativity. Tomorrow’s church must embrace the deeper truths, those that underly all the religions. It must embrace the complexity of God instead of attempting to reduce the ideas to flat historical fact. We must fight the tendency to identify with only one of science or religion. Together, they can be constructive and their collaboration might just be necessary for the fantastic problems of our future. Here is to future scientist shamans. 

Best explorations

-Ryan; 4/19/2020