Copyright © 1995 Dan LaFavers
God is Love
Observations of an atheist
I am an atheist.
That label, however, does not accurately describe what I know. For me it is not as simple as deciding not to believe in one particular religion's God, but rather having an understanding of God as being a part of us instead of something external. I want to share my thoughts on this for two reasons. First, I want people who do believe in God in a traditional way to understand that all sorts of religions in all sorts of cultures, and even atheism in some cases, are all celebrating the same core spirit that resides in us all. Second, I want to encourage other atheists to consider that there are truths that are not answered by a simple dismissal of religion and God.
Of course, simple dismissal of traditional dogma was where I started. I was in my late teens when I knew something wasn't quite right with religion's explanation of the world. At the time, I saw it as a contest between science and religion. It was rather easy, in the arrogance of youth, to think of stories about miracles and magical salvation as just so much folklore, but there was always a question that could not be so easily ignored:
If there is no God, why do so many people think that there is?
The answer to that question has brought me back to God, in a way. I'm still an atheist by any reasonable definition, but that's only a part of it. I can't help that the word atheist is both accurate and incomplete. I can't help that the image this word evokes is not who I am.
By daring to ask that question and looking for its answer, I have been able to see beyond the cultural, historic image of God, and find -- at least to my satisfaction -- what it's all about.
We are all born into a society, and we learn the ways and beliefs of the people around us. Through centuries and across the planet, cultures and beliefs emerge, evolve, and fade away. As different as we are from place to place and time to time, we all carry within us the torch of humanity, a divine spark that separates us from other animals. With different faces and forms, God has always been a part of us.
Each culture has its own mirror through which it sees God, and it's somewhat amusing to listen to people discuss which mirror is the more correct. Is God a faceless force of nature, a distant creator, a personal savior, an animal, a thunderbolt? What does God want? What rules should we follow, and why?
All of those are just fun house reflections of something else, something deeper, something that is a part of what makes us human.
What is it? What is this intrinsic spirit that becomes entwined time and again in a culture's ethics and laws? Is there a God beyond the God of Abraham, beyond Jesus, beyond the quiet knowing of the Buddha?
That something deeper is what I want to present to you. This is my own personal perspective. It is not a treatise on comparative religion, nor is it a dictum of new thought. Mostly, this is an explanation of why I am an atheist, what that means to me, and why that word is so lacking as a label for what I have come to know.
If there is one central idea of this work, it is that there is there need be no rift between the world we know through science and the world we know through God. Evolution, the Big Bang, genetic engineering, and the strange world of quarks have left the traditional image of God struggling for a foothold against modern reason. Are we animals, or divine? Did God create the world, or was it formed from left over star matter billions of years ago -- or are those the same thing?
There is no conflict between God and the world. How could there be? The conflict is between a religion that tells us one thing and our senses, reason, and measurements that tell us another. This is because religion, which is supposed to reveal God to us, can hide God behind cultural dogma. This isn't to say that religion is wrong, but that it is purpose is not singular. Religions define God within the context of a particular society. It provides the rules, the rituals, and shared beliefs that bind a people together.
Religions, though they are transient and specious, give a voice to the innate spirit within us. They allow us to overcome the flesh and instinct of the animal so that society as we know it can exist. Humans could do quite well living like other primates, hunting, gathering, and living quite lives in nature. But could we build cities, explore the atom, or reach for the stars without something that pulls us beyond the innate autopilot that has been formed by millions of years of Evolution?
What is this spirit that dwells deep inside us that needs such a voice? Certainly it distinguishes us from other animals, and its existence can not be denied. Is it, as people of faith would say, a connection with an almighty deity? Or is it a natural consequence of language, history, and purpose -- or are those the same thing?
When all the myths, ritual, and other trappings are swept aside, we must face the fundamental question of whether this divine spirit is a connection to a supernatural world or a secular phenomenon. What I intend to demonstrate is that this question is mostly irrelevant. A perception of God as magical and supernatural is fundamentally no different than a perception of God as an abstraction of civilization and psychology. Both secular and supernatural images are abstractions held within our minds.
Yet some of these visions of God place us in conflict with other things that we know, and we end up choosing between faith and fact. This is wrong. There is no conflict. We should feel free to rejoice in the entire world of which we are a part, without compromise, and without denial.
Think of this as an invitation to look over your shoulder, away from the reflection of God as defined by your religion in this particular place and time, and to peer into the very heart of God.
There is a fundamental and important difference between the fabric of spirituality and a religion that casts that spirit into a particular form. Religions give us images and rituals that draw the spirit to the fore of our mind where it becomes a part of who and what we are. Stories and prayers amplify and focus the spirit, but they are not the same thing.
For example, Christians believe that God came to earth as a man to teach us new laws, that he was murdered by crucifixion, and that his sacrifice grants a place in heaven for anyone who believes that his sacrifice grants a place in heaven for those who believe. Further, they believe that after being dead for three days, he came back to life, told everyone preach his gospel, and then rose into Heaven to sit next to God, who was himself, of course. They celebrate this with a ceremony of ritual cannibalism, in which they eat crackers that become transformed into the body of Christ, and drink grape juice or wine that becomes transformed into blood. To enter heaven, however, they must first have had water sprinkled on their forehead or have been dunked under water.
Without the spirit to give these images meaning, Christianity would, in fact, be as silly as this description makes it sound. But it would be a mistake to reject Christianity, or any religion, because its tenets are superficially implausible. I think most Christians understand that communion wafers don't actually transubstantiate into flesh, yet the taking of communion is still a powerful and touching connection with their God.
Even salvation granted through the death and resurrection of Christ, belief in which is a cornerstone of that faith, is also best understood not as a literal historic fact, but as a means of giving form, purpose, and even a name to the spiritual power that is within us. The power of that connection is evident in the popularity and durability of the faith. It endures because the image of Christ on the cross, and the many rituals that surround it, relate to our own lives in very deep and meaningful ways. I'll get back to that in the next section.
The important point here is to recognize that if one believes in such things as the virgin birth, oil lamps that burn for seven days, Eden, Nirvana, or salvation through murder as literal truths, the very messages that these images are supposed to reveal can become lost. More importantly, believing in the trappings of faith at face value allows one's mind to shut out other knowledge.
Creationism, the belief that the earth was created a relatively short time ago through direct manipulation by God, is the result of faith applied well beyond reason. I understand the sense of loss that makes this belief necessary. Genetics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, all peel back the mystery of God's world, and in so doing push God deeper into the atom and farther away from our sky. The monster that ate God must be tamed, and so some people use bits and pieces of science to reinforce their spiritual beliefs. This becomes necessary when science seems to say that we are nothing but mundane animals.
If we are mere animals, then where is our soul? It is a reasonable concern that if we believe we are descended from unenlightened, brutish animals rather than from God, we may eventually lose God altogether and devolve back into chest beating, wild-eyed primates. The debate of evolution versus intelligent design is not about which of two sciences is more valid. Creationism is no more a science than it is a cheese sandwich; it is an angry cry that affirms we are spirit.
But what has that to do with stellar spectrometry or genetic fingerprinting? The world is what it is, and we should rejoice in learning about its every detail. Religion should never come between us and the world of which we are a part. Thus, holding on too strongly to the form, rather than the substance, of religion separates us from our own world and makes it a frightening and evil place.
Worse yet, it can lead to prejudice and anger. A Wiccan priestess casting a spell over a candle, for example, or a tribal shaman dancing in body paint, evoke great emotion in people who place religion above spirit and see these not as other peoples prayers to God, but as evil things. It can lead people to ban books, ignore science, and even do harm to others, as when parents deny their children medical attention.
If the stories of religion are seen as fact, then the stories from all other religions must necessarily be seen as false, and the people who believe in those other stories must be thought of as lost and disconnected from God. And so missionaries go out into the world to correct people of this mistake. They will translate their bible into other people's languages, teach them how to live and think, and do whatever they can to eliminate the scourge of someone else's God. Entire lives are devoted to an endeavor that would not exist but for the blind spot that fails to recognize that primitive cultures are just as spiritual and alive in God as the missionaries themselves, and in some cases probably more so. Yet in they come to perform the very hostile act of killing someone else's god. At least it's not the autodafé when they were content to simply kill the people.
And how's that for a blind spot? How could any religion, the purpose of which is to nurture our soul and spread kindness and understanding, lead to such tragedy? I'm not just talking about the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago. Religion is a very powerful force that, in the wrong hands, can lead to cults, jihads, child neglect, murder, and mass suicide. This alone should be enough to warrant moderation, if not skepticism. The fact that religion can be used as a wedge between us and the beautiful, intricate world that cradles and fees us, belies its insufficiency as a complete answer.
Religion is not an end, but a means to an end. Understanding this is perhaps the greatest gift of atheism. Another is knowing that we don't have to choose between a religion and everything else that comes into conflict with it. Religion is a moment in time. The spirit endures because it is a part of us.
It's troubling sometimes the extent to which our everyday reality is driven by inescapable mandates from the physical and chemical panorama that surrounds us. We declare "I am" or "I wish," yet the inertia of evolution molds our brains and warps our intent, dragging us with its subtle slight of hand to the shallow and sordid now.
Is our divine soul to be found by flowing within or swimming against this torrent of instinct? We are all born with a built-in life trail, and within the vagaries of our cultures, we define ourselves in relation to this default, casting the players of our lives into the coarse, simple roles ground by millions of years: father, mother, hunter, lover.
Can there be a reality that is not, in some way, a reflection of the carnal creatures that we are? I think it's not so much a contest between the physical versus the ideal, but finding a balance of the ideal within the boundaries of the carnal imperative. We should, therefore, give some of our deepest love and care to the simple things of the body -- eating, sex, walking among the trees. We have to make peace with the animal.
To become master of the hungry beast, we introduce religion and social rules. These give us a context of thought in which we can examine our desires, negotiate with our primal heritage, and forego actions that would harm us or our communities.
Most religions spend a great deal of time managing this dialog between animal and mind, flesh and spirit. Some of the deepest images deal with this most important aspect of life. Taming the animal is a necessary part of living in a complex society. We need to constantly nurture calming attributes, such as patience, forgiveness, and tolerance, without which we would be in constant battle with anyone outside our own small group.
Religion allows us to extend our perception of the family to include strangers that would otherwise seem threatening to us. Religions and their canons extrapolate our natural, primate social structures and write them into law. In other words, God is the ultimate alpha-male.
There are some things that work in society and some things that don't work. For example, humans have a strong pair-bonding instinct that attracts us to our mate during childbearing years. If someone attempts to come between two people in love the result is hurt feelings, anger, and a strong desire to break things and hit people. We have a strong sense of ownership, apparent in the behavior of any two-year-old. Taking other people's stuff makes them very angry. It wouldn't take much adultery, stealing, murder, and such to leave us all in a perpetual state of arguing, hitting, and killing. This would make it very difficult to come together to build boats, pyramids, and transatlantic jets.
We need a mechanism to restrain the fear, jealousy, impatience, and other desires that arise in our everyday lives. We need role models and a sense of purpose. We need some mechanism to overcome, or at least manage, our natural instinctive urges.
All religions, to some extent, encourage acting in a way that enriches the community. Buddhists have the eight-fold path of right thoughts, right actions, etc. Taoism recognizes the forces of nature and seeks harmony with them. Hindus pursue karma through moral behavior that will determine their position in the next life. Moslems surrender their will to Allah. Christians have Christ.
On the cross, Christ died in the flesh, and then later rose again as spirit. His death and resurrection is a story of transformation from being a creature of flesh to being a creature of spirit. Thus it is when Christians are baptized. They go through a ceremonial death by being immersed in water, and then they rise again, as a reflection of Jesus, as a holy being of spirit. Baptism is a powerful ritual that has deep relevance to this everyday struggle between mind and body. The image of Christ on the cross, going through his transformation, mirrors the suffering that we all go through, and his resurrection mirrors the rewards of peace and happiness that comes from managing those struggles in a way that transcends the instinctive impulses of the animal.
In its many forms, religion gives us the rules for living in a culture. These rules, understood as morals and laws, are whatever lead to the stability and durability of a society. If cutting the heart out of virgins pleases some culture's image of God, then many a poor virgin will be killed for the good of everyone else. It was once accepted that people who break the laws of society should be stoned to death. This was moral behavior that helped keep the peace in its day. Even our modern world sometimes requires a blood sacrifice from those who break the most serious of society's laws.
The laws of religion inevitably moved into the secular world, and government has mostly taken over the definition of laws and the administration of punishment. In some ways, government has become a sort of post-modern God in which people place their faith and look to as a redeemer, punisher, and shepherd. This explains how people can distrust politicians yet maintain an abiding faith in government.
Whatever the motivation, the ability to act in ways contrary to our coarse instinct is what enables our advanced cultures. One way to think of God is as the part of us that allows us to quiet the animal's call to action. Instead of arguing, we negotiate. Instead of hitting, we talk. We sometimes fail at this, but if fighting and fleeing were the way we handled all conflicts, as animals do, then civilization as we know it could not exist.
When we lose God we lose our humanity. We are very robust and resilient animals. When rules and civilization are stripped away, we can still survive in the animal state by stealing, killing, and banding together in small groups. It takes cooperation, temperance, forgiveness, and other traits that are of God to live together in great cities and build great things.
Had we never discovered God, humans would have evolved as just another primate species, and a pretty weak one at that. How we happened to find God is the subject of the next chapter.
What would other animals say to us if they could talk? Is there any doubt that the household cat would tell us very familiar things about being hungry, afraid, or lonely? When a mother dog gives birth, would she not express sentiments about her pups that we would recognize as a mother's love?
Apes taught to use sign language can tell us when they are excited or sad. They tell us what they want to eat and when they want to be tickled or left alone. Dogs come and get us when the crying baby needs attention. Cats have ways of telling us we're not paying enough attention to them.
But no matter how intelligent a dog is he can't tell you that his father was poor but honest. Apes can't use sign language to discuss ethics or history beyond their immediate experience. We are animals, and so we understand communication about feelings and needs, and so we can communicate with other animals on that level. Imagine what other animals might tell us if they had been developing their language for fifty thousand years?
Language is the key to unlocking our discovery of God. Complex language gives us history, continuity, and a sense of self that extends through time and far beyond our physical bodies.
Through language, we learn the stories of our people. We learn about relatives who have long since passed on. We hear tales of great heroes, of nations born, of wars fought. As part of a nation, or a movement, or an extended family, we gain strength, purpose, and direction.
All of this is made possible because we can talk about who we are and what that means to us. Without language there would be no forefathers, no foreign lands, no nation under God, no Jesus, no Buddha, no Mohammed. There would be food, fighting, children, and today, but very little else.
Language shapes our thoughts. When we consider various ideas about the world, we organize them based on the words we use for them. Eskimos have many words for different kinds of snow, and so their perception of different types of snow will be more precise than yours or mine. Different disciplines of science and business have many words, or distinctions of words, that make sense only in that trade's vernacular. In computer programming, for example, the capabilities of a particular programming language will shape how a programmer visualizes data or the flow of an algorithm.
The world, of course, is much more complex and intricate than the words we have, and so we use language in creative ways. We speak of groups having a purpose, or nature having a balance. These are shortcuts that describe something more complex. Of course a group has no consciousness itself, and can no more have a purpose than it can have a shoe size. Nature is what it is, and our perception of it as balanced, beautiful, or full of nasty, biting bugs is something we construct in our minds.
A doe eating leaves in North Dakota has no perception of having traveled to a different nation when she crosses into Canada to get a drink of water. Would there even be a North Dakota without language to discuss territory, ownership, or maps?
Language tells us who we are, what the world is, and what our place in the world can be. Through language we have history. Through history we have a perception of being part of a chain of brethren stretching from the faded pasts and into the emerging future. This continuity is what enables cities and cultures to survive beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Without history, you have just a bunch of stones discovered anew by each generation. With history, you have Rome.
History moves through us as waves move through water. We bear our heritage and pass it along to our children. Because of language, our relationship with the world and with each other changes in profound ways. This is the genesis of our spiritual self, and is perhaps the most important distinction between humans and other animals.
Words pull us beyond the ever present Now into the realm of abstraction. We can ask, "Why?" and then ponder the answers over long periods of time because our words anchor thoughts that would otherwise fade quickly from memory. Words are shortcuts to vast, complex ideas, and they extend the capabilities of our mind to visualize and process information.
From this ability comes a different kind of self-awareness. We become abstractions ourselves, and this imaginary image of ourselves, within history, with purpose, is our soul. It is the vision of ourselves reflected in our own minds within the context of our society.
We suddenly have two worlds. We have the world of matter, of energy, of our bodies, and then we have a parallel world built of words, concepts, and ideas about the first world. When we talk with other people we compare our ideas, and this inevitably leads to a set of shared concepts that define a culture. This can be something as simple as knowing when to bow or shake hands or as complex as religion.
When you add to this our natural curiosity, and our brain's advanced pattern recognition abilities, we can't help but create a realm of the mind that parallels the realm of our body. If our bodies emerge from the womb and return to the ground, then what is the sources of mind, of spirit, and what happens to this when we die?
Thus the human condition of language, history, purpose, mind, curiosity, and culture gives us a sense of ourselves as spiritual beings. The spiritual person recognizes this, and nurtures this self-image toward peace and good in their lives and the lives of others. The enlightened spirit understands that this self-image is pliable. Who we are, the confines of our culture, the limits and demands upon our soul, are all imaginary.
The only inflexible reality is our flesh. Where we take that flesh, why, and to what end, is an illusion entirely of our own making.
Many religions assume the existence of a realm that is beyond the space and time of this universe. Is there something beyond the matter and energy that makes up the whole of this measurable universe? Is all that we can know merely a subset of something more? This something more would be the domain of such things as heaven, God, angles, psychic ability, and the dwelling of a soul after being released from the body.
How can we, bound as we are within the fabric of the material universe, interact with this other world?
Imagine some type of crossover between this world and the other world. Whatever the phenomenon, let's measure it in terms of the familiar things such as matter, energy, and force. At the crossover point, where energy or matter is manipulated, we would measure some change. With enough experimentation (assuming we have a cooperative ghost) we should be able to discover some effect that has no material cause. Of course if we can identify a cause we remain comfortably within the boundaries and expectations of the known world.
Many things in the subatomic world seem odd and unexpected with our current state of scientific knowledge, and measurements almost always affect what happens. Until our scientific ability advances deeper into the quantum world, we may be left the possibility that the other world can somehow generate causeless effects at the quantum level that lead to large scale effects, such as pushing pictures off walls or manipulating the brain activity of a psychic.
My expectation, however, is that as we continue to advance in our scientific exploration, more mysteries will fall to the mighty hand of experimentation. What is mystery today will be in science textbooks tomorrow. Even if we were to discover this elusive quantum causeless effect, we would no doubt observe it, measure it, classify its limits, catalog its behavior, and give it a name, thus making it just another part of this world.
So let us put aside any hubris that makes us believe we are capable of either proving or disproving the ultimate existence of the other world. One can literally imagine anything and declare that it must exist somewhere. If I choose to believe in the existence of Leprechauns, can you prove me wrong?
If we can think of the soul as the mental abstraction of ourselves, then perhaps the other world is the image we hold in our minds of circumstances and expectations that seem to transcend the material world. Consider that when you see someone, light falls on your retina and causes brain activity that causes you to be aware of shapes and shades that correlate with what your other senses tell you. But your perception of someone is not limited to the physical senses. You carry in your mind a reflection of that person. This includes memories of times shared with that person and expectations that come from observing past appearance and manner.
If the images of ourselves in our own mind can be thought of as our spirit, then our reflection in the minds of others can also be considered to be part of us. Let's say that on the way home from visiting with you, a friend dies. Your memory of this person, however, does not go away. All the thoughts, expectations, memories, and beliefs that you have of this person are still as valid as when you were together. In your mind, as far as you know, that person is still alive. You may even make plans to talk with your friend the next day.
In the same way that you can hold an image of your friend in your mind even after your friend is gone, we can hold in our mind a vision of the other world. To us, it is very real. Our mental map of what the other world is and means can be just as real to us as the image in our mind that corresponds to other parts of our world. Everything we interact with in the world must be understood and processed by the faculties of our brain. Whether we are interacting with a rock, a friend, or God, we are ultimately dealing with abstractions that are creations of our brains.
The function of our brain defines the parameters by which we experience and understand the world. One of the brain's most useful activities is pattern recognition. We look at clouds and see faces and animals. If we miss part of a conversation we can fill in the blanks with our own experiences. The brain's ability to recognize patterns, in everything from shapes to situations, helps us navigate our way through the world. When we encounter something we don't know or understand we become uncomfortable until we can match it with something that is already familiar to us. Then, like an optical illusion that suddenly changes from meaningless lines into a familiar image, the mysterious becomes known.
When we dream we seem to do things and go places while our bodies remain motionless. It's natural that we would conclude that these activities and places are going on in some other place that our spirit visits. When we use language to discuss these odd nocturnal journeys it's understandable that dreaming and the other world would become part of the culture.
The form, purpose, and expectations of the other world become shared through language and taught as part of a culture. The shared image of the other world becomes the dwelling of societal laws, just as the village is the dwelling of our bodies. Religion is the combination of a shared other world vision and the laws.
Because we must filter everything through a localized fabrication in our own mind, the distinction between reality and mere perception is fuzzy, and in some cases indistinguishable. Thus the other world, heaven, God, angles, can all be as real to us as any of the other complex parts of the world that we only understand through rough approximations. Whether the other world is, in fact, a reality that has a tangible existence beyond this physical world is irrelevant. The belief itself becomes a tangible reality.
There are many things that we perceive to exist which have no physical attribute. Whether they are models of something real or are contrived fictions, they help us relate to our world and to each other.
In economics, we create models that describe the countless actions of people buying, selling, working, and saving. Any average or sum of these transactions is an artificial creation, a shortcut to help us think about what's going on in a very complex, chaotic system. Aggregate demand, for example, is a lens through which we view certain economic behavior, but it is not the same as the buying itself.
Such a model, though imprecise, is bound ultimately to material actions. Something more abstract, such as the purpose of mankind, is similar in function though different in kind. While it can be thought of as being tied to the mundane actions of individuals, each performing a variety of good or evil actions, the purpose of humanity is not so much a model that measures or predicts behavior, but attempts to direct it.
Belief is a framework, a set of predictions and expectations that explain and anticipate the world. We are all constantly swimming in a set of beliefs about ourselves, our families, our government, and how the world works. Even when we delve into science, all we are doing is building increasingly refined models of the world.
We find ourselves using all sorts of strange but convenient cultural fabrications, such as destiny, civic duty, justice, national boarders, casual Fridays, and the wisdom of politicians. God, as with all of these other things, is as real as the effects felt in one's life. Each day, people open their hearts to God and experience a genuine transformation. Belief in God not only exists but is a very powerful force in many people's lives.
To hold on to that force, people of faith will build additional supports in their mental arsenal to reinforce their beliefs. All kinds of circumstances can be attributed to God, angles, or other spiritual powers. But if you peel back the layers of belief to discover the genesis of that faith, you will ultimately find that people believe in God because they want to believe. They find positive benefits from perceiving themselves to have a personal savior, an omnipotent mind who has a personal plan for them and looks out for them.
Once you believe that God exists, God does in fact exist, and is at least as palpable as economics, family, and citizenship. Once you recognize that the United States of America exists only as a collection of ideas about our relationships to each other, the land, and our history, you can see how tenuous that image really is. If we desire to be bound together as one people, we must continually reinforce the idea of nationality and teach it to our children. If we all stopped believing in the existence of our nation, then it would quite literally cease to exist. We would still have the trees, the people, the rivers, buildings, and cars, but the sense of purpose and context would be replaced with something else.
In much the same way, if we all forgot about God, then there would be no God as far as we are concerned. Just as there can be no sound without a medium, there can be no God without us.
Much of what people of faith perceive as God is the power of a shared vision that reinforces behaviors which enrich society. Notice that this says nothing about the ultimate existence of an omnipotent spirit residing in some supernatural other world. Unless there is a dramatic revelation, the only God we can know is the God in our mind as taught to us by our culture and religion.
This force, the God in the society, need not be tied to a traditional religion. As the literal image of the Christian God becomes less palatable to some, this force of goodness, protection, and purpose has become attached to Government. Government, of course, does not exist as anything but the collective actions of people with political power. Yet Government has become a new medium for the spirit of God. Government becomes the lawgiver, the protector, the mysterious force of good that defines and manages the world.
If we perceive this to be so, then regardless of the actual benefit or goodness of Government, we will perceive it to be purposeful and wise. Government gives and Government takes away. Government helps he who helps himself, but the devil is in the detail, particularly IRS forms.
There is no measurable reality beyond our individual actions. All else is lenses and mirrors. The important thing to remember is that our actions are what count. God, whether perceived as a paternal creator, the way of nature, or anything else, is valuable only so far as that image assists our doing the right thing.
When the image of God is pursued as the message rather than the medium, the purpose of the medium can become lost in dogma. Something that should unite us all becomes a point of argument or fear. My God is better that your God. My God is better than your science. If you don't bow before my God you are evil and are going to hell. What a frightening world some people build for themselves.
Because of how our brains work, perception is reality. In fact, because everything we know and touch is filtered through our senses and our brain, perception is the only reality. Every fact we know is part of the fabric of our mind. If we perceive ourselves to be part of a nation, then duty to our country can become more important than our own lives. If we perceive ourselves to be children of God, then we will act in ways pleasing to God.
All of this happens regardless of the ultimate existence of a super natural God. As the preachers keep trying to tell us, what really matters is faith. If you have faith, then you have God.
Cultures across the land and through time have created specific, tangible definitions of God. God is creator, father, savior, force, guide. We are asked to select one and only one, and then consider that to be the final Truth while all others are false. You shall have no other gods before me.
We can condition our minds to perceive the soul as being connected to a real, supernatural reality. Going to church regularly makes angles and ghosts seem very real. Some people even switch religions and trade one set of beliefs for another. With enough focused attention and prayer, one could come to believe in ancient Egyptian gods. Sometimes when people encounter a strong personality who seems to provide answers to the mysteries of life, they can be convinced to believe in all kinds of things. Mass suicides led by charismatic leaders are not unheard of.
If you do not understand the difference between actual reality and the ideas we have about reality, it is possible to mistake these ideas as something genuine. Once you see this distinction and understand that belief in God is a conscious choice to condition our mind to a greater purpose, it becomes all but impossible to then actually step under any particular dogma and wear it as if it were the one and only Truth.
Actual reality is chaotic, mundane, and meaningless. Through the mechanism of our mind, we impose form and reason on top of this, creating a kind of mental lens through which we understand the world. This lens, however is not the same as the world itself.
By whatever mechanism, we all have an innate understanding of our soul. It is as real as we are, and we must all choose what it all really means. One can imagine us all to be separate, disconnected beings, each locked within a static, stoic mind, but that's simply not true. I write, you read. You speak, I hear. We are part of communities, families, and history. When you put our many ideas together into a community you move to yet another level, and the interplay and synergy of multiple communities contribute to building layers upon layers of complex civilization. This is a very real, very powerful force that is both invisible and outside of us. We can choose to give this no significance at all. We can choose to understand it as an abstract, secular phenomenon. Or, we can believe that it is somehow attached to a larger context, and then call that larger context God.
It is difficult to both believe in God and recognize the artifice of God at the same time. If someone makes a conscious choice to believe only for the sake of believing, there's no way to ever fully forget that God is just a made-up pretense. It is as artificial as making and then praying to a golden idol. So what idea can we select that empowers, motivates, and nourishes this complex intermingling of souls? What will increase comfort, community, civilization? We are alive, and so we value life. We know the difference between comfort and pain, and so we value comfort. Such things as love, patience, understanding, compassion, are tools with which we can experience and share more life, more comfort.
Not surprisingly, you find religion after religion, culture after culture, rediscovering the same thing. Compassion, understanding, patience, forgiveness.
Without some type of metaphor or system of belief that encourages these stabilizing trends, we may never have been able to experience any type of meaningful culture. Religion, or some form of deeper, affirming perspective, is as necessary to our civilization as food is to our bodies. Without it you end up with war, bigotry, fear, and other cancers of a healthy people.
Organized religions provide a stabilizing system of belief, but instead of approaching it in the abstract, they tend to express these ideas in concrete stories and examples. Even if the parables of a religion seem outdated and irrelevant in today's world they are no less profound in what they're trying to explain.
We have grown beyond the simple parables of the past. It's hard to believe that heaven is really in the sky, because we've been there in planes and space shuttles. It's hard to believe that our entire universe exists so that a man two thousand years ago could be killed to forgive everyone's sins. Still, we can find value in the underlying stories that tell us we can move beyond fear, hate, and the limits of the flesh into a new life of love, community, and the unbounded history and tomorrow of the soul.
This is why, even with the storybook tales of Eden and floods there is still so much power in religion. It is far too easy to focus on the veneer of a religion. The rituals and stories aren't nearly as important as the truths to which they ultimately lead us. But just as it is a mistake to label any particular belief in God as the one and only truth, it is also a mistake, and perhaps a more dangerous mistake, to reject all of spirituality because the dogma of a particular religion no longer makes sense in our modern world.
The battle between religions, or between the religious and secular aspects of our lives, is really a struggle to define the lens through which we perceive God. I expect traditional religions will find it increasingly difficult to insist that their ancient stories be accepted as fact. Sadly, their most valiant efforts to hold onto the trappings of their faith may actually encourage people to dismiss their spiritual nature altogether.
We should be able to acknowledge the connections and mystery of life without descending into supernatural mythologies. Somewhere between science and fantasy lies a God that neither overpowers the world nor is diminished by it. This way of thinking about God may still be a construction of our minds, but no more or less so than many other shared fallacies such as nationality, honor, race, and justice that stitch together the fabric of our societies.
What is the weight of an idea? How can you measure the force of hope, or of despair?
Even if we could observe consciousness at work, and watch the neurons fire as understanding and insight take place, this would be no substitute for the experience of being alive and aware.
Somewhere between the chemicals and matter of the brain lies an aware being, capable of creativity, kindness, and curiosity.
We write music, stories, and epic novels. We draw pictures, paint, and sculpt. We have hopes and dreams. Before we take pencil to paper we have an image in our mind, and through practice we gain the ability to create more precise and complex art. The supernatural other world is not necessary to explain this, and yet these mental images which precede the physical art, the decisions that precede our actions, seem to nestle somewhere in between the atoms.
Deep down there may be a rational, scientific explanation for it all, but this has little to do with our perception. Our thoughts and ideas seem to float through us, rather than rise from some chaotic churning of brain juice. This phenomenon, this secular other world, can be both grounded in reason, yet beyond understanding. Moments of intuition, or that second when a complex problem suddenly transforms into the clarity of a solution, seem miraculous to us.
The way we think about our mind is not that much different than the way we think about everything else. That is, we make mental models and connect them together. We create in our minds such things as nations, marriages, and responsibilities. On the physical level, these things have no existence. There are only people, comprised of so much water and chemicals, moving about.
We create meaning with the mechanism of imagination, and then, through language, we compare and share our fantasies with each other. This invisible world of ideas is every bit as important to us as the physical aspects of our lives. However, as important as all of these things are, they are quite arbitrary. We could, as a society, choose to build very different models with different relationships and expectations.
Religion is a model, so are politics, science, and property. All of these ideas and models swim around in our heads and manifest our reality. We are born with clear minds. Parents and society tell us what is expected of us and what is right and wrong. Slowly our models emerge and we participate in the shared illusion that is our culture.
As an atheist I recognize that God is merely another morsel in this expansive cultural soup of the mind. But if we acknowledge the validity of citizenship, debt, honor, next week, forgiveness, and all the other illusions that give substance and meaning to our lives, then we can also accept that God can be a very real part of our lives.
But this is not the God of religion, which proclaims that there is an actual force external to us, and which is part of some supernatural domain. This God is as much a part of us as our names.
On one level, this kind of personal God is less satisfactory than an external power that can punish and assist us. On another level, this is so much more fulfilling, because we no longer have to pretend that science is trying to lie to us, or that heaven has gates made of pearl. We can have a more complete, consistent understanding of this great force in our lives, and finally be whole and at peace.
We should aspire toward holding in our minds those images that promote happiness, health, and well being of our communities and ourselves. We should work to rid our minds of the negative, limiting images that can cause anger, fear, addiction, or conflict.
Of all the ideas that might end up in our head, of all the vast array of models and images of the world that we might build, there is one optimal set of brain patterns that will maximize joy within our life and the lives of everyone we touch. We can give a name to this set of carefully selected beliefs and images of the world. Our Higher Self. This is the best person we could be. It is, of course, just another mental model. Thinking of our Higher Self as an attainable and desirable goal gives us a pathway to selecting and controlling all the other ideas about the world that we might have. It's the bootstrap idea that opens the spirit to limitless possibilities.
If you believe in your Higher Self, you will see yourself as capable of moving ever closer to that ideal. Through meditation, prayer, or just quiet moments by yourself, you can imagine what your Higher Self would do. You could, if you choose, engage in a silent dialog, asking for guidance. However you structure this vision of your Higher Self, as infinite spirit temporarily assigned to a physical body, as a soul that is part of God, or as an abstract set of enabling mental models, let it guide you. Know that salvation is only a moment away if you open your heart and allow your spirit to lead you on the right path.
As powerful as the image of our Higher Self is, there is one that is even greater. I don't think it can be said any more clearly.
God is Love.
Not as a metaphor, but as a definition. All of our gods, through so many ages and lands have been reflections of this simple truth. There doesn't have to be a heaven to know that love and peace are better than hate and war. There doesn't have to be a God for God to be with us. We share with each other a connection to that which separates us from animals. We live as part of a great chain of history and culture, granted to us by language, purpose, and our intellect. We are the keepers of knowledge and the vessel of God.
Verily, so be it.