I used to use this blog for other purposes, and may do so again. But right now I want to talk about something else. I’m doing it here mainly because I don’t want to be that person who starts new blogs all the time. What I want to talk about is god. O dear. I know, right?
Why on earth are you thinking about this and/or putting your thoughts on the internet?
So, I am intellectually agnostic. Why the adverb? Because the rest of me is less than agnostic. I have a gut feeling / longing to believe that there is a moving spirit and a bigger story, and I want a spirituality that will make me a better person. But while this is a nice feeling, I value scientific thought, the idea of objective truth, logic (Riaan may tell you otherwise, but really I do). I will not claim to or try to believe something that doesn’t feel intellectually justifiable. And neither definite theism or definite atheism feel justifiable. This leaves me in a space of doublethink, and, if you like, hypocrisy. Which is not necessarily a problem. Binaries are tempting but not usually accurate or helpful. So I’ve started building a spiritual practice, despite feeling that it is intellectually dubious. I’ll talk a bit about that below, for those who are interested. But in an attempt to avoid lazy agnosticism, and because I wish it was easier to talk to people about this, I’m putting this out there in the hopes of further conversation.
To be clear, I’m very sure that I’m wrong about lots of things and would love it if you corrected me 🙂 I have no intention to offend, only to get honest and try to learn.
The Language of God
These thoughts spring from my recent reading of The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief, by the guy who headed the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins. This book argues, quite convincingly I think, that scientists need not be at war with people of faith. This wasn’t news to me. I know the famous examples of scientists who have faith, and personally know several people of faith who are also massive science geeks. That debate is not what these musings are about.
I read the book in order to re-engage with my own relationship to spirituality. After various (mis)adventures with faith, I’ve been reluctant to think about it in recent years. I’ve said I’m agnostic, but I agree that this is a cop-out if you haven’t seriously considered the evidence either way, and runs the risk of missing out on the possibility of having a more solid view on the world.
The book raised, along with it’s rollicking ride through the sequencing of the human genome, several of the familiar old arguments that people make about the possible existence of God. I used to talk about these with friends late into the night. My friends have mostly seemed either to settle into faith with more certainty than I felt capable of, or disengage. No one seemed to stay interested and in-between, possibly because it’s an exhausting place to be, if existential matters matter to you. But I’ve decided to think about these things again, and see if I can get any further at 27 than I did at 17. So here goes.
- I’m using the word God to mean ‘bigger spiritual force(s) outside of our space-time that is/are conscious and active in some way that is beyond our understanding’ I’m really not fussy on names. ‘God’ has three letters, so I’m going with that.
- When I contemplate faith, I’m not contemplating any faith that validates homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or other hate, in any form. Those brands of religion have invalidated themselves completely in my view, and I’m not interested in engaging with them, whatever else they may claim to offer.
- Yes, I am currently using female pronouns for God. This is not because I think God (if there is one) is female. It’s because I was for a long time put off the entire enterprise of belief by the patriarchal co-opting of the possible divine as male, and all that that implies. These pronouns are an attempt to right the wrong that patriarchal religion did to my brain. I anticipate I will move to gender-neutral pronouns, before too long. This is a personal untangling that feels necessary to me (although incidentally I would recommend it – jettison that patriarchal baggage. Go on).
Argument 1: The ‘longing for God’ is universal across cultures, and this indicates a that God is real and wants us to choose to connect with her (I like to think of this as the ‘Call me Maybe’ argument.)
I think this longing could be entirely socially created. Feelings of dissatisfaction are an incredibly normal part of the human experience, and cultures have has just decided that some of these itches are holy and some are not. Or it could be a spiritual imprint. Short of some confirming divine experience, how would we know?
Both seem plausible.
Argument 2: So much harm has been done in the name of God, it must be bullshit.
This seems an emotive argument that doesn’t hold up even if you start from a secular POV. People are screwy. People twist ideas. Their actions don’t necessarily have any bearing on the original worth of the ideas, or on ultimate truth. Read the gospels (and probably the texts of other faiths) and that much is obvious. ‘Clean water in rusty containers’ a good metaphor. It can of course be said that religion is dangerous because it gives people the strongest possible justification for doing shitty things (God wants me to). That is a reason for believers to check their agendas. But it doesn’t have any logical bearing on whether God exists in the first place or not – only on the unfortunate aspects of human nature – and I don’t think that’s news to anyone.
Argument 3: Humans have a basic universal sense of moral law and the only explanation for this is god.
A few people I’ve read give this as their strongest pointer to belief. This troubles me because it seems potentially very explicable without belief in God, as well as with. Human societies have developed in parallel fashion in many ways, explicable by evolution, sociology, the complex logistics of living together in groups. Why on earth should a familiar moral code (look after the vulnerable, seek justice, right to autonomy) not have emerged from this secular process? Why would such a code NOT be extrapolated from the gut feeling individuals inevitably have about how they would want to be treated, for their survival and well-being, and therefore how those in a group should treat each other? And as groups realized that their definition of their group was limited, and they could in fact be considered to be part of a bigger group (human, even all living beings) those practical rules that give one the rights that one, of course, wants, just get applied more widely.
Crazy, self-sacrificial altruism, and the deep feelings of awe and rightness that people (self-included) have about it, is more interesting. However, I can see an argument for this being a cultural extrapolation from the above. It feels right when we look after others in our group, the definition of our group grows, and it feels extra right when someone does this even though it costs them, because this is something we have culturally decided is good, done to an extreme. This is backed up by countless generations of stories, which serve great social and psychological purpose, and could of course affect our feelings to the point where we weep over the firefighters who run into burning buildings to save strangers. Beliefs formed by stories and culture and admiration of peers make people do all kinds of crazy things. Just because this one is nice rather than genocidal doesn’t make it necessarily proof of the guiding hand of a deity.
However, as with the other points, it COULD also be a sign post to a deeper force / divine blueprint for a harmonious world. I think I even prefer thinking of it that way. But I would compromise my intellectual integrity if I said that any of these things constituted proof. What they seem to constitute is grounds for reasonable doubt on both fronts.
Argument 4: Why would a loving god allow suffering? There is no god.
Whether it’s caused by other humans or by natural disaster, there seems no way around it: the rules of the universe, from free will to physics and biology, are geared so that suffering is inevitable. If there is a god, she is not into intervening to prevent anyone’s suffering (or if she does, she does it in a way that is unfair to a sick degree – I don’t need to walk far from my hut here in Gulu to see that). The argument of theists that we need suffering to build our characters feels limited (god would surely have designed the means by which character building occurs) and the argument that suffering allows us to relate to and help others who have been through the same suffering, is not invalid in terms of practical advice of how one should deal with suffering, but it is circuitous and stupid when related to the god argument (why does god need to make anyone go through that in the first place?).
IF there is a god, (suffering’s existence does not in itself rule that out), the very existence of this question just means that there is a common misconception about what suffering is, and is for, and what love is, and is for. Maybe our very Western binaries are at fault here, not to mention our expectation of comfort levels unprecedented in human history. IF there is a god, even a loving god, then suffering is an essential part of life and not in itself bad. And love doesn’t mean prevention of suffering, necessarily. A small step outside the binaries solves this problem, but again doesn’t in itself sway me one way or the other about the existence of god.
Argument 5: The extreme unlikelihood of our universe, our planet, and then our evolution as conscious beings means there must have been a creator
Sure, it’s enough to give anyone significant pause. It’s crazy. But it only needed to happen once, and sure the odds are infinitesimal, but the chances were also near infinite for all we know, so of course it could happen once. And we are here because of course no other chance panned out, so how could we be elsewhere? The formation of our situation from the big bang til now works without god, from my understanding. But what set off the big bang? Lots of people use that as a marker for faith in god. But is that not just another god of the gaps, even if it’s a gap science may never be able to fill? Deity is not the only answer to mystery. My students always have this initial reluctance to saying ‘I don’t know’. They would rather try and bluff it, and so would I. But I think it’s good to try to be honest about what we simply don’t know.
Having said that, it also feels possible (if somewhat outlandish) that some great conscious spirit set these things in motion with us, complex conscious life, as the end goal. I mean, we are pretty crazy-cool, and the history we are making does have this arc that bends towards justice and art does make me feel very strange and connected to everyone else and also a deeper purpose at times, and all of that somehow came out of atoms in space against all odds…
But it comes back, again, to a big fat ‘I dunno, could go either way.’
Argument 6: There might be life of other planets! How can your earth-centric god deal with that shit?
This old chestnut is so odd, but it always seems to crop us. If other conscious life is there, it doesn’t make a spiritual principle more or less likely, from what I can see. IF there is some kind of god and IF there is also other life elsewhere… this is so insanely hypothetical now…. then that god (or maybe a different spiritual force to ‘ours’, whatever) could also have relationship with that life. I don’t really understand why people use this argument, tbh. Seems far-fetched and also like it doesn’t push logical thinking one way or the other. As with any of my other points, please enlighten me 🙂
Argument 7: The way things like music move us universally shows that spirit moves where scientific theory cannot explain
I feel it, sure. But I think it probably could be explained by inter-disciplinary theories linking the physics of music to its effect on our psychology within the evolutions of our cultures. Sure, that explanation wouldn’t capture the ‘magic’. Nor does reading the pavlova recipe capture the deliciousness. This doesn’t mean that pavlovas are proof of a transcendent being seeking communion with us (though what a religion that would be). Art is the most meaningful thing to me in the world and my life’s work will be around how it impacts us, its powers to inspire empathy, change, and awareness of our oneness. But this wonder does not in itself, point to God. It could – sure. I like that idea. But again, it doesn’t feel conclusive.
Argument 8 (specific to Christianity): Jesus must have been either God incarnate or a madman or a fool – you can’t read what he said and say he was just a wonderful human teacher
Sorry C.S. Lewis. You’re stuck in binaries again. This only works if people are only capable of saying true things OR crazy things. But I think individuals can and do say a mixture of brilliant, inspired, deeply true things AND deluded egotistical things. I have no problem thinking that someone saying both doesn’t make the true things less true or the crazy things less crazy. It does make it potentially hard to determine the difference, though.
So, what do I think of Jesus?
- Do I think we can discount him entirely because he said crazy stuff? No. Saying bizarre, deluded stuff sometimes doesn’t make you discountable as a person or teacher, and other things he said feel deeply true, have a wonderful, subversive logic, providing ways to stand against power with integrity, and provide a blueprint for universal humanism, and radical priority to the poor as the way that those who profit from power can be redeemed to a place of common humanism and moral integrity. No way am I discounting that.
- Could he have been a wonderful, inspired human teacher who also had moments of madness, whose followers made up some stories about him having physics defying magic abilities? Yes.
- Could he have been inspired /possessed by the Great Spirit that moves through us all and breathed the universe into being? Sure, if there is one.
- Could he have been UNIQUELY possessed by this spirit, to a degree unlike anyone else in history? It does feel odd that that would happen. But potentially. If there is such a spirit, that moves with some degree of consciousness, sure.
- Could he have been the son of god? I mean, in a way this is only a small and mainly linguistic step up from 4. It does feel to me like, if 4 is true, this is likely a story told by humans that squeezes that spirit, which is surely of form inconceivable to us, into familiar human terms. If 4 is true and some people want to put it in those terms I don’t have a problem with that. If you insist on a less metaphorical, more pregnant virgin type argument, my thoughts would be similar to those in 6.
- Could he have risen from the dead? If 4/5 are true… I mean, I guess. Sure. If there is a god, she could have intervened and pulled some crazy miracle against physics and biology. But again, this seems like a really appealing story for humans to tell that doesn’t seem necessary to, or in keeping with, the general habits of the great spirit, if there is one. So my gut feeling is that it’s most likely that something else weird happened, if the historical accounts are right about the empty tomb, and then it made a great story. What about Jesus predicting it? Well, he did speak in metaphors a lot. In summary: possible, intellect-balking levels of unlikely, and I also don’t see how it matters very much for following his wise teachings. Why do people like to get dogmatic about this? I wonder if it’s just because people like to get dogmatic.
I know I have friends who have actual degrees in theology and have read about a million times what I have on Jesus. That’s one of the reasons sharing this is terrifying. I’d love to know all the reasons I’m wrong. Seriously.
DIY spiritual practice
I’m not sharing this because I want to advocate that people leave their church or temple. If you’re finding connection and inspiration there, go you. I’m sharing this because I’d be stoked to have more conversations about it, and add other people’s wisdom to what I’m doing.
After reading The New Monasticism, I felt less alone in my feelings of unease about the trappings of traditional religion, and emboldened to seek spiritual connection in spite of them. I know some will immediately raise hackles at this, but I have started to form a spiritual practice that draws on Buddhist meditation, and the writings and prayers of both Christian and Muslim Sufi mystics (though I will note that the direct teachings of Jesus, particularly those subversive teachings of non-violence, social justice and selfless service remain the most compelling and most central ideas, to me). Those are the influences that have come across my path so far; I’m open to more. (and yes, I did enjoy Life of Pi and Eat, Pray, Love. Shameless, I know)
I know interfaith practices piss people off, so let’s talk about that. I understand the concern about the shallowness that cherry-picking can make of spirituality, but I would argue that it is possible to draw on a range of faiths with a determination to engage with them authentically. I’m not claiming that I do that, but I feel it is a worthy aim. I fully expect it will take a lifetime to even approach it. But that sounds like a fascinating lifetime, to me.
I also wonder whether giving oneself permission to move in an interfaith direction allows greater freedom to differentiate between the spirit-inspired, brilliant and compassionate wisdom held within each religion from the dogma created by human insecurity and failure, also to be found (I suspect) within all. I’m aware that some religions include passages to the tune of ‘this is the only way’ but I’m willing to call bullshit / hyperbole / human foible on that. The incentive for humans and their egos to think that way seems clear, but I have no idea why the spirit of the universe would operate so. To get really heretical, I sometimes wonder, when I hear the anxiety in people’s voices saying, essentially, ‘we must all do it this way or everything is lost’ – where is your faith? If this thing is real, surely if my only agenda is authentically seeking it, using my brain and friends and guts, why should God be threatened if I find her somewhere unexpected? And if I’m on some kind of scenic route and the Catholics (or whoever) were right all along then well… OK. Guess I’ll find out or die first. I’m still going to move in the direction that makes the most sense to me now. Partly because I find beauty and inspiration ringing common across faiths, and partly because I want contection, but want no part in ‘in clubs’.
What about community?
While I hope to experience spiritual community with different groups, I won’t partake at the cost of subscribing to an ego-feeding ‘us and them’ mentality. At a guess, some religious/spiritual groups will feel good in this regard, others will not, and the process of finding out will at least be funny. And I hope to always live connected to the community around me, whether we share any theological beliefs or not.
Obviously, all of that is very personal, not intended to be prescriptive, and is still a work in progress. I think I’m done. If you got this far, I’m delighted and truly surprised. And I’d love to talk.