A Flow of Consciousness as an Antidote to Atheism.
This is written as a response to "An antidote to religion" on Daniel Lea's "Atheist Resources" pages which are no longer available on the web. It is not an answer to Daniel, but after reading his pages I wanted to write something; here it is. This is not a completed document but will, I hope, get updated every so often as I understand more. So here goes.
The first thing that you have to get the hang of is that it is possible for two or more people to view one thing in different ways; to describe it, therefore, differently; but to be accurately describing the same thing in ways which may seem self contradictory. A simple way of illustrating this is to think of two people looking at a diamond under a bright light but from different directions. One describes, maybe, a circular shape with purple highlights which hardly change as he moves his head, the other a cone shape with orange and red flashes which come and go as he moves. They are both describing the same thing, neither is lying, and if you know that the object is a diamond, there is no problem with the fact that purple is not orange or red, and that the difference in direction of view gives a different shape. Oddly, there is very little chance that the two of them will start to fight over their different views --- strange, isn't it?!
I contend that any two people's views of religion, the Almighty or what makes the world tick will differ (possibly hugely) through the fact that they must have different viewpoints, but that their different descriptions of their views do not deny the commonality of what they are trying to describe. Nor does the fact that two people disagree while trying to describe the same thing mean that they are not both correct in what they say, and it is no reason to therefore claim that they are talking of something that does not exist. Also, if you can not see the diamond it does not mean that it is not there.
People find it very difficult to be dispassionate about religion, I don't know why. Maybe it is because it is very important to them or they wouldn't have sorted out such a complicated interlinking of the world with such a simple answer, I know I get very uncomfortable myself if others try to point out that since they don't understand my view, it must be less good than theirs. Secondly, as it is based on their own faith that the paradigm of the whole world containing their view of God works, there is some threat to themselves if their image of God is challenged. I find it amusing, seen from a distance, that followers of a religion with pacifist rules should find it necessary to fight to impose that religion upon people who have a different view of the diamond. I find it unavoidable, from my view of the diamond, that this will be so, and it is no surprise that the religion will have a special sub-set of behaviour rules to make this allowable. (I leave Bhuddism out of this, it doesn't fit into my understanding yet, and it's interesting that many people claim that it isn't a religion but a philosophy. . . heigh-ho!).
It is not reasonable to base an atheist view simply on disagreements with mainstream christianity. There are flaws in christianity based on its early beginnings, just as there are virtues shown in its ability to survive a couple of thousand years. To my own taste even if those virtues are frequently questionable, they should not be denied out of hand. The prime flaws I see are founded in the fact that Paul took a minority Jewish sect and sold it to the biggest market around (the Romans), knocking it about a bit in the process. Because of this I find it difficult to take the new testament, from the Acts onwards, without being a little cynical about it. Don't get me wrong, I do not deny the virtue of much of the teaching the epistles contain, it's the general tenor of the thing that gives me trouble. (And if you lived through the sixties, the Revelations are the sort of thing that you tried to help people get over.)
However, christians are not in a position to take some of the new testament, and deny the rest. This is because the structure of the religion is based firmly in Paul's teachings, and like all human organisations it is structured to be self perpetuating and capable of defending itself against change. (Frequently it seems that Paul might have been the "founder" of christianity if the frequency of references to him in sermons were the gauge.) The only way out is revolution, schism, etc., and a new sect will usually fall for similar self perpetuating organisational traps as those it was trying to leave. OK there are notable exceptions. . . . Quakers, I believe, and others with a very un-hierarchical basis. But as many sects go for stronger discipline as their reason for dividing off, and as this leads naturally to a strong central organisation to the "church" they found, the seeds of the problem are sown again and frequently surface in a generation or so, after the founders and their initial fervour have gone.
None of this is adequate reason to deny the existence of God, though it may be enough reason to check out the works of man very carefully. So why should one accept the existence of God, and what is his nature?
Do not be fooled, just because it is possible to phrase a question does not mean it is valid. "Who created the universe?" seems like a question which should have a valid answer. It has a few flaws however: the word "who" implies a person, "created" gives the whole thing human dimensions, implies a start and seems to assume that the job is finished, and there seems to be the implication that the questioner might understand the answer, even if there were one! If the universe is, as I believe, continuous there is no question, yet alone an answer. "What is God?" is for me a similar question, I'm not sure I'd understand the answer even if I knew what the question meant, however I am convinced of God's existence . . . to borrow from New Riders of the Purple Sage: "Take a look around you". I can do no better than this in showing that God is there; there is something going on that is outside our immediate knowlege. Perhaps "god" is a word we use for the incompleteness of what we know, but I'm not happy with that as a thought since there is definitely the experience of "knowing God"; I feel it and others report it.
I am an engineer and, being a scientist, there were many things of a more spiritual or of an "alternative" type that I was very cautious about accepting. The possibility that dowsing were anything other than a crank's way of taking people for a ride seemed unlikely to me. Unfortunately for me, I then discovered that I could dowse . . . Oops! Finding this did cause me to accept more things as being possible, when before I would not even think about them. This does not mean that I believe things with no real reason to do so, but that I don't refuse to consider things from a position of flat denial --- at least I try not to. Having an enquiring mind, going through the sixties during my formative years, and the dowsing experience have left me thinking that there is not much excuse for believing that I might even begin to know the whole truth. There is something final about an atheist's statement that there is no god that makes me worry what else he is missing. It's healthier to believe that "there's nothing so odd that it mightn't be so", at least it allows you to understand more of what makes other people tick.
So, I prefer to believe in God, in fact I do not know a reason why I should not believe in God. Something inside me tells me there is a god, and my observation of the world over the last fifty years leads me to think there is one god only --- or maybe there is one class of things that I don't understand which fits the "god" concept in my paradigm, if you wish; me, I prefer to call him God.
I have already denied the validity of asking what God is, but it ought to be possible to describe some of the nature of God as I perceive it --- my view of the diamond, incomplete and biassed by preconceptions, but mine. I have been trying up to now not to be anthropomorphic about God, but I find I am unwilling to call him "it", and "she" implies gender which is irrelevant. I fear that I shall not be able to maintain the non-human allusions here on in.
I have also denied the question "Who created the universe?", but that is not to deny the existance of the creation. Because it is continuous, its time span is infinite, it means it has no end (not a problem to those in the habit of saying ". . . world without end, Amen" at the end of prayers and meaning it), but the beginning is just the other end and I think that it doesn't have that either. I apologise to the Big Bang fraternity, but if the Big Bang can be proven to have happened, rather than just being mathematically describable, I shall happily eat my words and will try to figure out what is going on again with the new data. It seems more likely to me that the whole shebang didn't start at all, with a totally uncharacteristic discontinuity, than that it did. Maybe the Big Bang did happen as the cusp at the end of one cycle of creation, and the beginning of the next --- I could go for that but I do not think it very likely.
Once you accept that "the creation" is continuous it is not hard to accept that it is still in the process of happening, and this leads to a reason for the existance of mankind amongst the rest of creation. There is a good image of us being the hands of God, which illustrates what is going on to some extent. But we are not the only "hands of God", the rest of creation is also part of the creating. My belief is that mankind is an aspect of God, and it is in part through the development of humanity within the context of the rest of the creation that the creation is achieved and furthered. It is also, of course, through the development of everything else as well throughout the whole universe, and now you begin to see just how enormous this idea of God has become, and why I fight shy of anthropomorphic images of him. God is everything.
There have been those who have accused me of arrogance for daring to think like this, because, of course, I am part of God. So is everybody/everything else. I find this reaction surprising for, far from arrogance, this understanding causes me to feel terrifyingly small, and drives me to have a realisation of responsibility which I am not sure I can bear in my lonelier moments. Why I should be surprised I don't know, because these thoughts (though far from my own and hardly unique) challenge the established religions. Of course the normal human reaction to such a challenge is to attack back in terms which will challenge me. I'm lucky living when I do, for I believe many have been killed for the heresy I'm propounding.
(Now, there is a defence mechanism human institutions use all too frequently --- to socially cast out anyone who threatens the establishment, and then provide a legal method of killing them. I wonder why I am cautious of the established religions? It would be dangerous to believe that we have grown beyond that type of behaviour, it was only the year before I was born that the death camps in Germany were liberated, and if you think that doesn't count since it wasn't (?) religious in origin check out the treatment of the gnostics by the Church in Provence in the 16th century.)
There needs to be some way of getting a scale on things. The God of which I speak is as relevant to galaxies as he is to me or to a microbe; the creation has the same scales, too. Yet on occasion I get a strong feeling that God is affecting my own life directly despite the size of these other commitments. There is the classic question, "Why should God pay any attention to one person, when they are so small a part of the whole of creation?", but this too suffers from anthropomorphism, it is very difficult to imagine a person who could do it, so God can't either. How often does the questioner consider the nail on the little finger of his left hand? I suggest that he does so whenever there is some trouble with it, or when it is useful to complete some task, rarely otherwise because it can get on with its existance quite satisfactorily without his consideration. The questioner still exists whether he spends any time considering the nail or not; the nail is still part of him. So it is with God and mankind - or microbes or a galaxy - although God does not need to consider the questioner all the time, the fact that it is difficult to understand how he might is no proof of his non-existance.
I find that the christian concept of the Trinity fits well with God as I percieve him, this is best described from the human perspective but applies to all things. The Father is everything that has come before us and that goes into making us what we are. The Father is our ancestors, our history and that which becomes our education. The Son is all that exists now, the "hands" of God. The Son makes things, changes things, works at continuing the task of creation. The Holy Spirit is the inspiration which continues from the Father through the Son into the future. The Spirit caused cathedrals and bridges to be built, pictures to be painted on the walls of caves and chapels, steam engines and microscopes to be invented. The Spirit is the hope that keeps people enquiring and striving to improve the creation. The Spirit gives the lateral leap which solves the problem or the dogged persistance which keeps going till it is solved.
I must admit that I had trouble with the idea of the trinity whenever it was talked of in religious lessons at school. It seemed so important a concept, and so meaningless at the same time. I could understand the need to have the Father and the Son separated if you were going to make sense of the idea of Jesus being the only son of God, but why the Spirit? The thought given above began as a struggle to understand what the word "trinity" could mean, and has become a clarification of life as I have lived with it. I haven't met any one else who thinks of it like this yet, but I bet I'm not alone.
From this description of the Trinity it may become obvious who I believe the Son is: not just mankind, but the whole shooting match as it stands at the moment. We are not gods, but we are part of God, with the responsibilities, and, in the long term, the capabilities implied by this fact. What price global warming and acid rain now? We're doing it to ourselves in the bluntest way possible, and though these phenomena are uncomfortable for the human race they are part of the creative process. It may well be that we are bound to dispose of ourselves if we are incapable of doing the job properly. . . . . . guess what could be happening at this very moment. To take the idea further, we are not gods but we are God in the sense that my hand is not a human but it is human. It seems to me that to claim that one person is "the son of God" does not make sense. I allow that, since we are all part of God, some of us are closer to the ideal of what we imagine God to be than others, and that the ultimate is exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth; from this he is the son of God, and it is a pretty good idea to follow his teachings. Actually you would have trouble bettering his teachings so it definately is a pretty good idea, but make sure you are following his teachings, and not some politico-salesman's construct. There are some other contenders for the title (but you must find those for yourself, and judge their worth), just as there are others who pretty much define the other end of the scale.
The creation is generally furthered by the process of evolution. Evolution is, in general, achieved by having random perturbations of the existing way things are done, and, if the resulting variant is better than those around it, it survives preferentially. If the new way of doing things can survive there is a mechanism for passing it on the next time the system is renewed . . . sometimes. The result of this is that in the very long term there is a statistical probability that the creation will improve, or at least get better at surviving. Another result is that there will, of course, be perturbations that are not 'survival enhancing'. This is the creative mechanism built into the world, it is the influence of the Spirit that enables us to use it to improve the world. One can claim, and I did for a long time, that there is a "down side" to God, i.e. he makes mistakes. Actually I see this as a misconception of what God is and of what God is doing. As a person is to his finger nail mentioned earlier, I think God is sublimely indifferent to the small workings of the creation, unless there is some reason to pay attention. If an 'act of God' causes a hillside to fall onto a village and kill the inhabitants this is not God at fault but an aspect of the evolutionary/creative process at work (although probably a down-side perturbation). I can not guess whether this example would actually improve or worsen the creation in the long term, or merely be insignificant, but that is precisely how the mechanism works --- I think, however, that the villagers would probably think it was a lousy idea and, from their perspective, a definite example of God making a mistake.
People who pray a lot are, in part, praying in the belief that by doing this they can bring things to God's attention. I think they may be correct, which is part of the reason why I do so myself. I do wonder, however, if prayer doesn't concentrate the mind to enable people to be more at one with the Creator/God, and that the mechanism by which the prayer is answered is often that one becomes more understanding, and better as "the hands". (There is the old truism that "it's funny how often good luck happens to those who work hardest", the same kind of thing may apply with prayer.) If you do pray, then it is important that the "conversation" is complete. A child who is always asking people for things, and rarely talks of anything except his wants, soon gets ignored, the same is true of the inveterate flatterer, I think the same is true of the content of prayer. I, personally, have trouble with public prayer since I rarely talk to one person loudly in the company of others who are listening to me, it is like having someone else listen to a my telephone conversation, I don't like it. Ritual prayer I accept as an art-form, and I find it constructive but not as a conversation. There is much ritual to religion which is astoundingly beautiful if you like ritual, and stinks if you don't, this does not mean it is worthless, or that the religious sect that uses it is wrong, but that it is another facet of the diamond . . . if you do not recognise the value of it you may simply be looking from a different direction. Sometimes the way to understanding is through immersing yourself in something under the right circumstances, the way many people get to like classical music. Sometimes it just isn't worth it, there may be more effective ways of becoming a better part of the creation.
So don't scrap God as an idea because the people around you describe something that fits their understanding and not yours. Getting uptight because someone thinks that you need converting to their view is a good way of missing the truth. Because of this, my belief is that you should not try to impose your beliefs on others . . . offer them if asked, maybe, but do not try to "convert" others, they may have a better understanding than you have. It's better to live by your beliefs than to shout about them, if you're right people will notice and maybe come closer to the truth themselves. If you shout you turn more people off than on, and if you were right would you like to live with that on your conscience?
If you've read this far, then the last paragraph may seem a bit hypocritical, but then I guess you chose not to stop reading, thank you. Since this seems to be going on for ever, I think I'd better wrap it up for now. I'll come back and rework it as the spirit moves me!
Latest update July 2013,
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