Nathanael Garrett Novosel, July 3 2024

Ask, Believe, Receive? Or Desire, Believe, Work, Achieve?

I presented my findings on the eight drivers of someone’s sense of meaning and purpose in life, and someone immediately said that they could summarize it all in one idea: The Law of Attraction. Although the statement was incorrect—the Law of Attraction only covers 3-5 drivers at most (desire, belief, emotions, and as a stretch support and choice if you count “the universe provides” and “inspired action” as part of the Law of Attraction belief system)—it’s not entirely wrong that it does tout many of the same components as the eight drivers (for reference, the eight are growth, experience, desire, belief, emotions, ethics, support, and choice). Another person asked me if I thought the Law of Attraction was real. But all of that dances around the question at the heart of all of those ideas: What is the role of non-physical in helping you with your life?

This is a difficult question because science is the study of the physical universe, and so any comment on non-physical is unscientific. Therefore, I hate to say that this means that, at least at the time of writing, I don’t officially comment on things that I cannot support or prove with research from scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology and biology. However, it turns out that there is a way to narrow down the unknown to a borderline irrelevant space in the conversation, so let’s talk about the small, small difference in conclusions that the most adamant secular atheist holds vs. the most spiritual or religious person and pinpoint where the viewpoints actually diverge.

The thing that bothers me about those debates is that they start with where they differ and act like the chasm in their beliefs is significant: one believes that nothing exists outside of what we can see (although, to be fair, scientists have come around to the idea of the multiverse and so even that’s not true for many people on that side now), whereas the other viewpoint believes in God, The Universe, or Source Energy (or similar terms) that has non-physical properties that influence their life based on their thoughts and actions. Because of that seemingly huge difference in beliefs, the secular side chastises the other side for believing in and spreading fairy tales, and the spiritual side criticizes the secular folks for removing the spirit, soul, and meaning from life as well as possibly leading people toward nihilism, moral relativism, and other harmful systems. As a result, it’s no wonder that they jump to the points of disagreement and begin to debate those, especially since that singular belief shapes so much of their respective worldviews (note: while many atheists claim that their lack of belief has no influence, it clearly does since it affects ethical beliefs and, therefore, everything from politics to how to live daily life).

That all said, we’re going to start from the other side: where there is agreement. That way, we can see the reality, which is that the difference is so much smaller than it seems. It’s kind of like when two opposing political parties get together: they seem to be so far apart on every topic, but if you actually focused on what they agreed on (e.g., crime is bad, work has to get done to live, there are fundamental human rights like the freedom to practice a religion), you could probably get them to agree on 50-80% of things. So let’s start with what everyone can agree on: there are general practices that lead to a happier, more fulfilling life for most people.

The question is, what are those practices? Well, not coincidentally, the eight drivers of meaning are pretty universally accepted. Growth is important because you should eat, drink, sleep, reproduce, develop skills, and otherwise improve to live a good life. Experience is touted at the means to live life to the fullest. Desire is what drives people to succeed. Belief is necessary to carry on through tough times. Being in touch with your emotions but regulating them is important for well-being. Having strong ethics is important for good relationships with others, while having support is important for cooperating and greater success. And everyone agrees that good choices are important. So there is a number of areas that anyone would agree with.

The issue is that there are sub-areas of disagreement. What are the right ethics to hold? Which choices should you make? Who should you rely on for support? Which experiences are best for happiness or meaning? What should someone learn or develop to maximize the likelihood of success? That’s where the disagreements start to come out, and that’s natural both because the belief systems will lead to different conclusions and because there will be differences between people based on their goals and capabilities. So that’s where the divergence starts.

But before getting to the differences, back to the title of this article: ask, believe, (work?), receive. Note that even both sides of the debate on the existence of any kind of spiritual entities would agree on the core components of getting what you want: you have to want something (desire/asking); you have to believe it’s possible; if you have those two things, you maximize your likelihood of getting it? Why? Because it causes you to act in ways that will help you attain your goal. The only difference in this formula is that spiritual people believe that their desires and beliefs are causing something non-physical to respond and guide them or help them toward the outcome. A pure atheist would simply believe that the desire and belief maximizes your probability of continuing to work at it—even or especially through failure—until you succeed but that there is nothing magical behind it at all. He or she might point at the fact that plenty of people still fail despite seeming to have plenty of desire and belief but that those are ignored or dismissed by spiritual people who would complain that they just “didn’t want or believe it enough, or they would have it.”

So, when viewed through this lens, the two opposing positions agree on every single element of success and simply disagree on one simple thing: whether anything supernatural assists in success. And that is what amuses me about the debate: when you realize that you can’t, in fact, scientifically prove any non-physical cause but you agree on everything else about what makes it work, then who actually cares whether that element is happening or not? This is the real interesting question to me.

And here is the answer to that question: it matters because humans have to make choices with how to spend their lives. There are two ways to look at why it matters: because everything you do has a cost and a risk of harm associated with it as well as a benefit; because you have a limited amount of time, energy, and resources in this life and you have to choose how to spend them to optimize your outcomes. That’s why it matters to the secular atheists: they believe that the spiritual people are wasting their time at best and possibly harming themselves (or others) at worst. The most obvious example is that if you want to fly and believe you can and then jump off a cliff and flap your wings, you will fall and die. The most common one for success/failure (vs. life/death) is that if you are genetically unable to be a good enough athlete to play professional sports, you should probably spend your time doing something else so you can earn enough money to live a good life vs. wasting your time working toward a goal that’s never going to happen, leaving you disappointed. That’s it. Those are the only two reasons why someone who doesn’t believe in spirituality would try to convince someone to stop believing in it.

Note: An important part of reason 2 (you might hurt yourself or others with your incorrect beliefs) is that under a governmental system that establishes ethics that everyone has to follow, they don’t want to be beholden to any rules that society might set with those false beliefs or be subject to any negative consequences of them. It’s the fact that they might be hurt that often gets them to become the most vocal.

But those same two rules work both ways: why would a spiritual person want an atheist to change his or her mind? Because they believe that spirituality would benefit him or her or that he or she would get what they want faster if they put their faith in God/The Universe/Source Energy rather than struggling so much. So that is why the debate will continue on forever: that belief strongly shapes you life choices.

But, fortunately, the key to success is the same regardless: find what you want in life, believe it’s possible, work hard toward the outcome, and achieve it. Yes, there is a part where spiritual people might believe in “instant manifestation” or “God bring me X” where they don’t have to do any work for what they want to find them, but otherwise it’s roughly the same process to succeed in life.

So that’s the good news: you don’t have to have a hard stance on the existence of anything outside of what you can see or prove to use the same methods that atheists and spiritual people alike would use to be effective: eat, drink, sleep, love, set goals/state your desires, belief that anything is possible, be a good person, continue to improve yourself, and make good choices. The basic elements that make you successful in life are universally agreed upon. It is your choice in what to believe and how to live your life to make it a happy, fulfilling one, but at least you know the formula for success. You can choose to believe whether God or the universe is responding to your thoughts or believe that it’s simply priming, the placebo effect, and the law of averages…in either case, you will be successful.

Whether optimism does more than enhance your mood so you work harder is up for you to decide; the success formula works either way. Maybe you are optimistic so people want to be around you and help you; maybe your positive thinking made you try one more time and it finally worked; maybe you got a job opportunity because you went out to a bar instead of staying home depressed; or maybe God or Fate were nudging you toward the right interaction or experience you needed and it changed your life. Who knows?

There is only one little difference between an optimistic realist and a spiritual person who believes that they have to put in the work to succeed: that one additional belief gives you just a little more hope when all seems lost or when success seems impossible that maybe, just maybe, something good will happen despite all evidence to the contrary. That is a little something called faith…and you might consider having some if you want to overcome the hardest challenges in your life, whether you choose to have faith in something non-physical happening, a random fortunate event, or yourself, your family or friends, or your society. From an “active ingredient” standpoint of what Law of Attraction advocates believe, someone with faith in a positive outcome without or despite evidence would achieve functionally the same result regardless of whether they believed that anything non-physical was helping them along the way.

So if you wanted the best of both sides of the argument, you could have a little faith that good things can happen without you directly causing them to happen but not let it change how hard you worked toward your goal. If you did that, you could let the debate go on and you would never have to answer it to live a successful life without missing out on the possible benefits of spirituality or the risk aversion of secular atheism. Consider it a modern form of Pascal’s Wager (background: Pascal’s Wager was that believing in God had a benefit in the afterlife and no consequence if there was no afterlife whereas non-belief would get punished in the afterlife)—I’ll call it “Novosel’s Optimal Life Posture”: you don’t have to believe in anything non-physical, but you should have faith in positive things happening in your life to get the same benefit as believers with no downside if you’re wrong as long as you remain detached from the outcome (which, not coincidentally, is exactly how Law of Attraction folks suggest you act to get the best outcome).

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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