The subject of theism versus atheism has almost always been a difficult one to discuss calmly, because the social tension surrounding religious beliefs and institutions are inherently high. I must preface my remarks by saying that I am a member of more than -step fellowship. These fellowships practice a program of recovery from addiction that is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model. Friends and other people I know in the fellowships who hold what I would call conventional theistic views are often surprised by my opinions about God and spirituality. On a basic intellectual level, my point of view is far closer to that of an atheist than to the church-goer or other religious person. I don’t know many atheists—I’ve become acquainted with more on the internet than in my personal life—but I have found that they are often surprised by my opinions as well, perhaps even more so, because I argue for the value and necessity of spirituality despite my disbelief in God.
When I ask theists to define God, by no means do they all give me the same answers. There’s usually something quite vague about their answers, which in itself indicates something about the problem. But if I had to summarize most of the answers into one definition, it would be that God is a supernatural and all-powerful being who created the universe. This being has many different attributes depending on the speaker’s background, religious upbringing, or any number of other factors. In our culture, which is predominately what they call Judeo-Christian, the being is usually referred to as “He,” a male person. Other characteristics include the aspect of a judging watcher or listener, someone who listens to prayers, a being characterized by perfect love for humankind, a being that can perform miracles, and so on and so forth. One may have problems or differences with one or more of these attributes, but that doesn’t really affect the basic “supernatural creator-being” concept.
On a purely logical basis, I have long been convinced that such a being is literally impossible. When we come to those attributes conveyed by the major religious traditions that are of cosmological (and thus social and political) significance, I end up having grave moral objections as well. There is no point, however, in attempting to explain my conviction within the confines of this essay. Most skeptics won’t need explanations, and most believers would be impervious to them. But rather than merely reject this concept, and thereby put an end to my thinking on this subject, I seek its origins and its significance for human life, and this search leads me to a wider understanding of what spirituality really is and why it is important.
It seems to me that human beings—those animals on this planet that developed self-consciousness, which in turn engendered thought, language, and culture—experience a basic intuition which concerns something beyond the immediacy of their existence. I call this an intuition of eternity. A rational formula that aimed to convey the thought-content involved in this intuition would be something like: “In order for all things to be conditioned, reality itself must be unconditioned.” Historically, such formulas appear much later than the original intuition; usually they never appear at all. Human beings simply experience awe and wonder—at existence itself, but even more importantly, at the existence of a living, experiencing subject: the wonderer himself. That is to say that the questions posed are not merely, How did all this come to be? or What is all this? but Who am I? Self-consciousness is the spark igniting the spiritual impulse.
Experience is personal, in the sense that I alone, or you alone, experience everything as a single existing individual. Therefore everything we experience seems personal as well, until finally reality itself, the unconditioned that we intuit, is conceived as a person. And every social aspect of our existence, from the parents and children to the tribe, as well as other animals, feeds into this central idea, so that the gods (and later God) constitute a sort of cultural palimpsest in which one can read the thoughts of the human wonderers.
It is all metaphor, a mythopoetic realm in human consciousness. Metaphor is the way humans express the meaning of their lives. It is absolutely subjective. Even insofar as the metaphors accurately reflect the phenomena we perceive, the significance can only be subjective. I believe that “God” is the absolute conceived in the human mind as personal. A Hindu philosopher might say that if God is absolute and ultimately impersonal, God must be inclusive of all manifestation, and therefore of the personal as well. This is an ingenious way of explaining theism, but it won’t hold up unless one accepts the validity of metaphor as the only way that humans can express the meaning of their own lives.
The false attitude towards religion, in my view, is of the literal truth of a religious belief or doctrine. When a religionist proclaims literal truth, he is denying the validity of metaphor and placing truth outside of the mythopoetic realm, and into the realm of mere phenomena or things. The source of meaning is shut off, and a crucial sense of importance is placed on belief, a mental operation. The conflict here is primarily political, the issue being the desire to unite people around a particular religion and codify their social behavior through beliefs. The intuition of eternity is ignored and suppressed, and along with it the subjective nature of meaning—in its place we are offered an external (objective) belief system to which we are ordered to submit in order to be happy, be saved, have a moral society, or what have you.
Until the rise of science, there was very little perceived contradiction between metaphor and literalism. Science arose from the human need to understand the actual nature of phenomena. A scientific treatise is metaphorical only in the way all language is metaphorical—as an abstraction of real things into thoughts and symbols representing them. But in the spiritual sense--in the way that myth, metaphor, and poetry have been conceived from time immemorial—science is something completely different. It is, in fact, a way to understand and express the literal truth.
Scientists struggled to discover the truth about the planets, for instance, for no other reason than to understand the actual truth about the phenomenon of the planets. Truth in this sense is an objective value. On the other hand, if we take two religious mystics, one of them believing in an earth-centered cosmology and the other believing in a sun-centered cosmology, both of them will derive some symbolic meaning from their respective cosmologies, and they will most probably be very different meanings. The meaning has to do with themselves, with the reality of being a self, of being alive and conscious, and all that this involves. The scientific fact that the earth revolves around the sun has no meaning in and of itself. Its only significance, if we can use that word in the context, is that it is objectively true, but it has no mythopoetic significance without the human subject.
I think most scientists understand this. Their business has nothing to do with religion. But for the religionists who cling to the literal truth, science is an obvious threat. Science places a firm boundary between the metaphor and objective fact, but the religious literalists don’t want to see that their beliefs don’t qualify as objective fact. Perhaps they have an unconscious sense that the validity of the mythopoetic realm is being threatened. The trouble is, they are not conscious of the realm in which they live. They think that meaning comes from outside the human breast, that the subjective cannot be trusted. They’ve bought into the idea that “myth” means “false” and that “metaphor” means “not really.”
When I was in summer camp as a boy I got into a conversation with another boy in which the subject of Adam and Eve came up. At one point I blurted out that of course Adam and Eve was a myth. The other boy, who was Catholic, was so shocked that he refused to speak to me from then on. I wasn’t trying to shock him. I just knew instinctively, probably because of my liberal upbringing, that there was a difference between mythology and history, and what each of them looked like. I loved mythology and derived a lot of benefit from it, including myths from the Bible. Today I don’t accept many aspects of Biblical mythology as meaningful for me. In other words, there are metaphors expressing meanings that I don’t accept. But I don’t question that whatever power a story such as Adam and Eve has for us is born from the power of metaphor. The other boy had no conception of that. Being shut off from the actual power of his own myth, he could only surround the story with anxious taboos, and flee in fear whenever the poetic nature of his own belief was revealed.
I see the controversies around religion today, the apparent conflict between religion and science, as actually a conflict within religion itself. The intuition of eternity will never go away, because it is true. But because it can only be expressed through metaphor, those who seek spiritual meaning are being challenged to recognize and embrace the poetry of the religious impulse, and to realize a life beyond the mental adherence to a set of beliefs—in short, an expansive, visionary life.
What troubles me about the current debate from the atheist side is that I hear (not always, but quite often) an expressed desire for humanity to realize its error and abandon theism. This is really the same mistake the fanatic makes who thinks everyone should convert to one true religion. It’s not going to happen. The human race is never going to all have the same beliefs. Nor is it desirable that it should. Such a goal could only be attempted through brutal violence. The attempt has been repeatedly made, and it has always failed. Atheists are of course not threatening to convert anyone to atheism through violence, but the idea of mankind renouncing religion through reason is hopelessly naïve as well. I also think that there is a failure on the part of atheists to seriously explore the sources of spiritual practice and culture, and a general discounting of myth and metaphor as mere superstition that people should do without. We cannot do without it, because we need to have meaning, and meaning is an expression of our subjectivity.
The real problem, it seems to me, is political. It’s no threat to others if people develop and practice a spiritual culture, in whatever way they choose. It only becomes a threat when people attempt to impose their culture and practices on other people through government, war, or other forceful means. The religious institutions as political entities, with their own social agendas based on self-interest, are all about controlling other people, and very little about asking, “Who am I?” There is no alternative but to place a legal wall between these entities and the state, and that’s exactly what the founders of the
The fundamentalist would argue that the teaching of evolution in the public school violates his rights because it contradicts his religious beliefs. An atheist might remark that the fundamentalist thereby demonstrates that he does not understand what science is, and I agree. But what I’m also saying is that in addition to not understanding what science is, the fundamentalist, more crucially, more tragically, does not understand what religion is.