My Views on God
Part of a series about My Faith Journey.
After I had my faith crisis, it prompted me to reexamine everything I believe in, including my belief in God. Having deconstructed both Mormonism and Christianity, I was now in the position of wondering which of the numerous world religions might be "right", or at least "worth my time".
The Mormon church expends a lot of effort bolstering its "one true church" claim. As a result, the church discounts & discredits all the other churches / religions as "not us, therefore wrong". Lots of members buy into this. (I did.)
So, rather than engage in the time-consuming and potentially fruitless investigation of all the other religions, I decided to go a little deeper and investigate why humans are inclined toward religion in the first place. I've always found a lot of benefit in the field of psychology, so I looked there. The most useful information I found was this:
The human body is a remarkable machine but sadly has numerous imperfections and defects. The human brain is no different. We have evolved to see things, not as they are, but as we are. Our early childhood impressions of being dependent on our parents inclines us to envision corresponding heavenly parents. When we see forces at work that we can't understand, we attribute the cause to some mysterious, higher, intelligence. We envision a God that look like an idealized version of ourselves. We envision an afterlife that looks like an idealized version the world in which we live. We imagine living in that afterlife in a body that is an idealized version of the one we have here on Earth.
Much of it is summed up in this video: Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe?.
See also: No Ordinary Man Could Have Written This.
Another good video here that deconstructs Pascal's wager.
I think I was born with the "believing gene", so I'm inclined to believe in something, I'm just not sure what that "something" is anymore. One thing I know for sure, is that I don't want to live with cognitive dissonance ever again, so I started with "what God isn't".
The Mr. Deity episodes helped me as well. They deconstruct God very effectively using humor.
I watched / listened to a fair amount of Christopher Hitchens YouTube videos which gave me a new perspective.
There's also this stand-up bit which contains some remarkable insights expressed via comedy: Letting Go Of God - Julia Sweeney.
A typical depiction of God is as an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, wise, benevolent, perfect creator. I'm going to take issue with that. Here are some of the defects I have noted in the human body:
And I'm supposed to believe that an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God created these bodies of ours? This is really the best plan he could come up with? With my own, imperfect, mortal, faculties, I can spot all of these defects, but God couldn't? Sorry, but I just can't believe in a creator God anymore.
As I was pondering on the nature of God and what he may or may not be, I reviewed Michelangelo's painting of God creating Adam. I had seen it before, but I looked at it with new eyes.
There are several, subtle, clues in the painting that suggest that Michelangelo wasn't an orthodox believer.
First, note the shape made by God's cape. It's the same shape as the human brain. (I encountered this idea from my viewing of the Westworld TV show.) This suggests that God is simply a construct of the human mind. (Related: There's a quote that says: "The human mind has always had a God-shaped hole inside it." Fitting that God would fill the hollow part inside the cape.)
Numerous other people have already made this comparison, as this Google Image search reveals. It is worth noting that Michelangelo would've had access to cadavers to help him with his paintings / sculptures, so it is unsurprising that he would go into this level of detail articulating the various parts of the brain.
Second, God is floating in the sky, while Adam is on solid ground. God (inside his cape) looks like a thought bubble, suggesting that Adam is thinking of God, and further reinforcing the idea that God is a construct of the human mind.
Third, observe the similarity of the poses between Adam & God, especially the incline of the torso and the extension of his leg. When paired with the above "thought bubble" interpretation, this implies that Adam is thinking of himself. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes once said (paraphrasing) If horses had Gods, they would look like horses.
Fourth, look at the placement of the hands. Even though the figure of God is higher than the figure of Adam, Adam's hand is higher than God's (and drooping to reach down to God's hand, no less). This subtly communicates to me that Adam is the dominant player in this painting.
Lastly, note the placement of the figures in the painting. Some languages (such as Arabic) read right-to-left. If Michelangelo were an Arab, we would rightly read the figures right to left and interpret this as God creating man. However, Michelangelo was a Westerner, and in the Western world, we read left to right. Reading these figures left-to-right, we see Adam creating God (in his own image, no less).
The Stage 4 person in me wants to conclude that Michelangelo was an atheist, and that he figured out the non-existence of God centuries ago. The Stage 5 person in me wants to read this a different way: that there is a little divinity inside each of us, and our depictions of God are an external representation of the godliness inside all of us.
One thing I'm retaining from my upbringing in Mormonism is the sentiment behind the phrase "I am a child of God": We each have a spark of the divine and possess godly traits that we inherited from our deific parents. (I believe there was an early LDS church leader who described humans as "Gods in embryo".) The Hindus had this figured ages ago out when they coined the term "Namaste", which translated means "The God in me salutes the God in you." (I explained my new views on God to some of my Hindu coworkers and they thought it was perfectly sensible.)
As I reflect on the good things that have come to me in life, and the good I've done for others, I have to conclude that those good things came by human hands. (Contrast this to the phrase "acts of God" that you see on insurance claims forms, which usually means that some disaster happened, like a flood or a fire.) So, if our hands can bring about "godly" blessings, doesn't that make all of us a little god-like? (Another quote I heard: "There are as many gods on this earth as there are people.")
Shortly before my faith crisis, I prayed very sincerely and I remember asking God, "Are you really there, or am I just talking to myself." At the time, this thought caused me great sadness, thinking that God wasn't there (especially when I believed that he had been there in years prior).
I learned of an American psychologist named Julian Jaynes was who wrote a book in the 70's which hypothesized that our ancient human ancestors used to have a "bicameral mind". In other words, the two hemispheres of their brains did not communicate with each other as they do now, but were separate; one hemisphere would issue commands to the other via an internal, mental, voice.
He further explained that we see remnants of this bicameral structure in our modern minds that manifest as schizophrenia, intuition, moments of inspiration, or even mild hallucinations. The most common manifestation is as a "still small voice". Thinking about this makes me wonder if a future generation of humans will have this trait completely bred out of them and the idea of "voices in our heads" will seem totally alien to them.
There is some controversy surrounding Jaynes' bicameral model and it is not universally accepted, but I can see how he could make the case for it.
I'm now at the point where I acknowledge two truths: a) yes, I was talking to myself the whole time, and b) the divinity I was praying to was inside me the whole time; I have the power to answer my own prayers, both in thought and in deed.
I'll address an argument I often hear from theists. It goes something along the lines of: "There's an infinitesimally small chance that human life could exist on Earth, therefore God made it." I have a couple of issues with that claim.
First of all, why is the universe so incredibly big? Why is there so much uninhabitable, empty, space? Why are there so many stars without habitable planets around them? Why did God waste so much space?
Next, why did God make so many uninhabitable planets? There's only one planet we know of that supports life, but there are numberless planets that don't. What purpose do those serve?
Focusing on just our planet, what about all of the parts of the earth that are uninhabitable by humans? It's often argued that the earth is in the "perfect" spot to support human life: a little closer and it would be a furnace, a little farther away and it would be an icebox. Well, what about the places on the earth that could be described those ways like the poles or volcanoes? What about the vast oceans that cover 70+% of the earth? Why did God choose to make all those places uninhabitable by humans?
When our sun reaches its end-of-life, this earth could become either the furnace or the icebox described by theists. We rightly conclude at that point that this earth isn't "just right" to support life. Where does God fit into the picture at that point?
For 2.3 billion years, this earth was inhabited exclusively by single-celled organisms (bacteria, algae, archaea). Why did God allow those unicellular creatures to dominate the earth for so long? What was he waiting for?
During the early history of the Earth, the atmosphere would've been toxic for humans (and mammals in general). If the Earth was "made for us" and is "just right", then what about the billions of years when it wasn't "just right" for us?
Furthermore, this earth has not been exclusively made for humans. There are numerous other life forms here, and the number of extinct species far outweighs the number of extant species. Picture a dinosaur looking around and thinking in it's dinosaur brain: "All of this was made for us"... and then a comet strikes the Earth and wipes them all out.
Likewise, there could very easily come a time when all human life is extinguished (e.g. via another comet). Following that disaster, another intelligent / dominant life form could emerge in our stead. For whom would the Earth be made then?
Another thing that I find a little specious about the "infinitesimally small chance, therefore God" argument is that the universe is infinitely large. Therefore, any / all possibilities could play out somewhere. It's possible that there are other planets with life in the universe, and they may not have the same (intelligent) lifeforms that our planet has.
One other concept that kind of blows my mind is thinking that the "big bang" / "big crunch" events may have happened numerous times, possibly even an infinite number of times, each one creating its own universe, which might / might not have the right conditions for (human) life. Once again, over an infinite timeline, it's not unreasonable to think that one of those scenarios could produce (human) life.
I'd like to return to the idea of "The god of the gaps". The meaning behind it is: Whenever we don't know something, or come to a gap in our knowledge, we stick God in there. Here are some examples of gaps that have been filled with scientific knowledge. People used to believe that:
As the body of human knowledge has increased, we have filled these gaps in our understanding with rational explanations grounded in science:
I heard it said once that the purpose of a theologian is to inject God into the observable world. The problem is, as the scope of our observations enlarges, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a place to inject God into. (And theologians have to come up with apologetic arguments to account for the discrepancies between their previous explanations and new observations that disprove those explanations.)
I heard Sam Harris once say that "Ra, Zeus, and Odin were all once gods in good standing with devout believers who attested to their literal existence. Both the believers (and the gods) are gone now." So too, I saw the god I believed in slowly begin to vanish...
As these insights dawned on me, I found my belief in God begin to fade. For many years, I pictured a loving Heavenly Father as a bearded, robed, paternal figure who knew me by name and looked after me on a daily basis. Now, I came to see him as an imaginary friend, who I had felt close to and loved for many years.
I could not help but be reminded of the scene in Inside Out where Bing Bong (Riley's imaginary friend) helps launch Joy on the wagon to the cliff's edge. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, he sacrifices himself so that Joy can escape, while leaving himself to vanish in the pit of forgotten memories.
All my life, I was raised to believe in a God who sacrificed himself so that men might have joy and so I found this scene very fitting. Deconstructing my faith was painful, but ultimately it helped me to escape the depression caused by cognitive dissonance and find greater joy. And so, I tearfully bid goodbye to my imaginary friend that I'd had for so many years.
I also felt an odd connection to the song "On My Own" from Les Miserables. Here are some selected lyrics that really speak to me.
On my own
Pretending he's beside me
I walk with him till morning
And I know it's only in my mind
That I'm talking to myself and not to him
And although I know that he is blind
Still I say, there's a way for us
I love him
But when the night is over
He is gone
The river's just a river
I love him
But every day I'm learning
All my life
I've only been pretending
I love him
I love him
I love him
But only on my own
Seeing God vanish from my mind was a bit discomfiting. I felt that sense of malaise that accompanies disillusionment. It was comparable to the experience Neo had when he learned that his reality was an illusion and that "real life" was actually living as a human battery in a pod full of pink goo.
However, I concluded that the word "god" wasn't going to instantly disappear from the human lexicon (or my own personal lexicon), so I needed to find some new definition for it that could make sense to me. I also wanted to find a definition that wouldn't require any cognitive dissonance. And so, I set out to reconstruct God. (Think of it as my personal attempt to "make the word flesh".)
A common question people ask themselves after they've left a religion is: Where will I get my morality from now? This often leads them to search for another religion or a spiritual / philosophical path of some sort. It turns out that the source of morality is closer than we think.
Numerous animals have adapted traits that improve their survival and help them to thrive. The most important trait that our ancient human(oid) ancestors evolved was cooperation. Humans are able to join efforts to accomplish amazing things, more so than any other species. It really is the human "killer app".
That inclination to cooperate brings with it a host of other traits that help to support it. If I'm going to cooperate with my neighbor, I really shouldn't kill him. If I steal things from him, we won't be able to work together. If I sleep with his wife, he'll get mad at me and we won't be able to build things as a tribe. There are also a number of "positive" inclinations we have: I should really look after that widow or that orphan or help take care of that sick person so they can help the tribe later on. The upshot is that along with cooperation, humans evolved... morality.
This is the dirty little secret: Religions have convinced people that they need religion to teach them morality. It's one of the biggest cons ever pulled in history and it's been played very effectively for countless millennia. The truth is, humans didn't get their morality from religions, religions got their morality from humans, and then they repackaged it and sold it back to us. We had (have!) that morality inside us all along.
This quote from Marcus Aurelius seems fitting here:
"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but...will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."
One day I was listening to this Infants on Thrones podcast. The guest made this observation (paraphrasing): matter and energy are interchangeable (per Einstein's theory). That means that all the energy that makes up my body, and that forms my brain, was once energy, in some form or another. (There's a wonderful quote that says "We are the universe contemplating itself".)
That same energy may have been matter in another form. The particles that make up my body could've been a rabbit, or a deer, or a butterfly (supporting the Buddhist idea of reincarnation). I could've been an ocean once, or a mountain, or a star (supporting Carl Sagan's quote that "We are the stuff of stars").
Lastly, that energy, is eternal (per the law of the conservation of energy theory). It has always existed in some form or another, floating in space, forming into planets, being destroyed, and re-formed again. I listened to a Mormon Stories podcast featuring an Imam of progressive Islam who described Allah as eternal, supreme, formless, genderless, occupying all space and time, etc. That certainly seems to describe eternal energy. He went on to say that "If all the trees were pens, and all the oceans were ink, they could not write a fraction, of a fraction, of a fraction, of the mysteries of Allah". That quote applies perfectly to eternal nature of energy and matter. If energy could speak, what stories could it tell? How many different things has it transformed into?
"You are the universe expressing itself as a human for a little while." -- Eckhart Tolle
I heard Jordan Peterson (on The Joe Rogan Experience) give an interpretation of The Tower of Babel story: God is "the great unknown" that is always out of our reach, symbolized by placing God up in the sky. In order to reach him, men applied their knowledge to engineer a tower that could reach God... but they were confounded. And thus God remained... out of reach.
This same idea was explored in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: The Enterprise flew through "The Great Barrier" in an attempt to find God. They certainly found an incredible creature there, but it turned out to not be God after all. If God is to be found in the universe, perhaps he shall always remain out of reach.
a realization I gained while listening to a My Book of Mormon Podcast episode: Without humans, no one would be pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (nod to Douglas Adams). Humans strive to find meaning in ourselves, our world, and even things we cannot see, experience, or comprehend yet. ("We are the universe contemplating itself.")
Without humans, without the lifeforms that evolved into humans, our world -- our universe, even -- would be nothing more than a series of chemical reactions, all neutrally valued and meaningless. Because life exists, because humans exist, there is a "human spirit" that wants to discover, explore, create, invent, solve problems, and make the world a better place. The universe has morality, meaning, and purpose, because of us.
That may sound like an arrogant statement, but I actually find it very humbling. I feel a sense of responsibility and honor knowing that I possess inside me the qualities that give the universe meaning. And the best part is, it isn't just inside me, it's inside every human (maybe even every creature) that has lived or will live. In the same way that no two people are perfectly identical, there isn't one, single, meaning to life. Rather, there is a broad, diverse spectrum of "meaning" and each of us get to discover it just by looking inside us, and externalizing that meaning through our actions.
In one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels called Hogfather, there's a conversation between Death and Susan that goes like this:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Pratchett was an atheist, and yet I see in this text a greater defense of belief than I've ever heard from any theist. For many people, God represents those "high ideals" that we need to believe in -- even if they are not 100% attainable -- so that life can have some purpose / meaning. I have noticed that people who become atheists do not abandon high ideals like justice, mercy, responsibility, progress, etc. They just don't call them "God" anymore.
So, the explanation above is pretty lengthy. This is problematic, because people like to reduce their own (and other people's) beliefs down to a single word. So, here's my views on (and comfort level with) various labels that are frequently used.
I've heard it said that once a person reaches a post-conventional stage of faith, they are presented with a three-pronged fork in the road:
So, let's tackle those three labels first before we move on to others.
There are a lot of definitions of "nihilism", but most of them point in the direction of: nothingness, non-existence, rejection of everything, annihilation / absence of everything. Not a fan of this one. Like I said, I think I was born with the "believing gene", so I can't get behind the idea of "nothingness". (Besides, 'The Nothing' was the antagonist in The Neverending Story, so I come with a pre-installed dislike of "nothingness".)
"I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." -- Umberto Eco
Absurdism basically means that humans live in a meaningless or irrational world. It's kind of summed up in the quote "The end of life is tragic, the middle is awkward and the beginning is laughable".
I've heard it said that humans eventually face a confrontation with the absurd, and when they do, the only real question left is suicide. Those that choose life manage to find some way of living with absurdity. (I find laughing helps.)
I don't think life is meaningless (for reasons heretofore described), but I don't think life has intrinsic meaning, either. There is a lot of irrationality in life and I don't buy into the notion that "everything happens for a reason". Instead, I think humans can find value in their experiences and make their own meaning in life, which leads me to...
I've heard Existentialism defined thusly:
Existentialism posits that the essence of the individual is concrete because it is determined by the choices that one makes. Because meaning in life stems not from a greater power but from the individual, the individual experiences Angst as a result of the knowledge that they have absolute freedom to exercise their own free will. Because all meaning stems from the individual and is therefore subjective, Existentialists are confronted with the Absurd. However, Existentialists believe that one's morality can carry one through encounters with the absurd. (source)
That speaks to me. I think we can find our own meaning in life. Whatever meaning we find can be unique, special, and important to us, and it can change over time, as needed.
I'll just tack on this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:
"The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience."
For whatever reason, I'm not comfortable with the "atheist" label. I don't believe in a personal / interventionist / creator God, but I still don't like thinking of myself as an atheist. Maybe it's because I was born with the "believing gene", maybe it's because old habits die hard, maybe it's because the term carries some baggage (in my mind, anyway), maybe it's because I've listened to some militant atheists that I find off-putting, or maybe it's because I think that humans have some "divinity" to them. I'm probably at a 5.5 on the Dawkins Scale, which means I don't feel like I can really plant a flag on the atheist turf. That all said, I have plenty of friends (and some family) who are atheists, and I always enjoy my associations with them.
This basically means "I don't care if there's a god". I don't think this label describes me. As mentioned earlier, I think I was born with the "believing gene", which means I care about the issue of divinity.
Having said that, most of the actions I take day to day are not dependent on the (non)existence of any god(s), so maybe I do live a bit like an apatheist most of the time.
This label I'm comfortable with. All agnostic means is "I don't know if there's a God". If we were to substitute "God" with "higher intelligence" then I'm even more comfortable with the label. Picture it: we live in an infinitely large universe, which contains an incalculable number of stars, many of which have planets orbiting them. Can I really say, with absolute certainty, that there doesn't exist on any of those planets, some lifeform which could be more intelligent than us? No, I can't say that.
Another point to ponder: If our ancient primate ancestors could see modern day homo sapiens, with our advanced societies and technology, they might well conclude that we were gods. Is it possible, that, at some far-flung point in the future, whatever humanity evolves into could seem like gods to us now?
Another thing makes me more inclined toward agnosticism is the question: "Why is there something instead of nothing?" I don't know the answer to that.
And yes, I'm aware that "atheist" and "agnostic" are on two separate axes (belief vs. knowledge). Still more comfortable with "agnostic" over "atheist".
I like this one. It describes a belief that morality is central to human existence and a result of us having evolved to be a cooperative species. It also speaks to the idea that we can develop a code of ethical behavior based on reason & rational thinking rather than a belief in a rewarding / punishing God.
I like this one a lot too. I've heard it defined as "a doctrine that identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God". This really fits with the idea of "eternal energy" described above. It also connotes that the universe has some (many!) undiscovered mysteries, and, for lack of a better term, I'm okay with describing those mysteries as "God".
I like this one, too. There's a quote that says: "there are a lot of paths that lead to the top of Mt. Fuji". The idea here is that you can follow any number of traditions and find your way to morality... and even enlightenment. I'm not into "exclusionary" views of the afterlife, like what I was taught in my Mormon upbringing, so Universalism is refreshing to me.
I don't believe in reincarnation in a literal sense, but I do like the concept behind it that everyone can attain enlightenment and escape the karmic wheel eventually. For some fortunate souls, it might take them only one lifetime. For others it might take ten, or a hundred, or a thousand. No matter how long it takes though, there is the possibility that everyone can be redeemed. That's a very affirming, universalist, idea to me (even if I don't believe it in a literal sense).
There are a lot of definitions for mysticism. For the purposes of this discussion, I'd like to define it as "The Great Mystery" or "The Great Unknown".
I once heard Joseph Campbell say that one of the purposes of mythology is to present us with a mystery that we can ponder on. That "sense of mystery" fills us with awe, ignites our minds, and creates in a us a sense of wonder. Life would be a lot less worth living without that sense of wonder.
So, at this point, I think I've come up with three definitions for God:
Funny enough, these actually fit pretty well with the Christian labels:
Here's my take on how these three definitions interact. The lines below are attempting to say "what the left-hand-side grants to the right-hand-side".
Pantheism --> Humanism: the universe temporarily expressing itself as a human
Humanism --> Pantheism: we celebrate/love life/nature; interdependence
<< These next two were the hardest ones for me to articulate. Maybe revisit later. >>
Pantheism --> Mysticism: vast, unexplored vistas; how far will life evolve?
Mysticism --> Pantheism: what is the fate and destiny of the universe?
Humanism --> Mysticism: we push against frontiers (Star Trek-style)
Mysticism --> Humanism: fills us with awe & wonder
I remember hearing an explanation of God once as "big enough to fill the universe, but small enough to fill the human heart". I originally poo-pooed that view because it was contrary to the teachings of my religious upbringing, but upon reflection, I've decided that explanation was pretty accurate after all: "big enough to fill the universe" sums up Pantheism nicely, while "small enough to fill the human heart" sums up Humanism nicely. Since we haven't fully plumbed the depths of either of those things, they are both filled with mystery, which sums up Mysticism nicely.
Thinking about the above points inspires awe in me. It satisfies my desire to believe in some form of godliness that is eternal, meaningful, and yet... human. It's compatible with science, and it doesn't require any cognitive dissonance whatsoever. That's where I'm at right now in terms of belief, and it actually feels pretty good.