In the last couple of years I have been mildly amazed at the excitement generated by the proudly atheistic writers, Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. My atheistic friends in particular have seemed disappointed at my comparative indifference, to their arguments. There are a couple of reasons for it. One is that the god that they don’t believe in is one that few but the most unreflective fundamentalists either could or do believe in, and the other is that it seems rather unimportant to me, though interesting, to speculate on whether or not there’s a papa or mama-in-the-sky. There’s also the reality that I’ve sort of been there and done that.
It is a topic that people debate with passion, some going so far as to say that to disbelieve in such a person (and such a formulation is and must be a person) is to be punished, but to believe is to be rewarded, and that, in fact, belief or disbelief is the only basis for such punishment or reward. They call it salvation by faith, but that’s a misnomer. It’s actually salvation by belief.
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The story of humankind universally includes a religious spirit — a spirit of worship. Since it was the human mind and spirit that were articulating the relationship with the divine, it was always given human qualities. In primitive societies religion began as simple animism — the investing of the natural things around them with will, power, and sentience, either evil or good. These things could be propitiated or manipulated by certain rituals. As human culture became more sophisticated the spirits of the rocks and trees and earth and sky also became more sophisticated and more abstract. They no longer inhabited the things of the earth but merely had power over them, and later not merely dealt with things but ideas. This is the religion of classical paganism where what had once been the sky that was worshipped became the ruling god whose weapons were thunderbolts, and the divine earth became the divine mother, a goddess of fertility.
These were only two of many, though the most powerful, since heaven and earth seem to cover just about everything in one way or another. The belief in a single god (or even two or three) was a late arrival on the human scene. Each of the many gods had his or her own phalanx of worshippers for whom their particular god was the most important, but the reality of the other gods was never denied nor was their power denied, either for reward or mischief. Although the Judeo-Christian Bible is thought of as a monument to monotheism, in the older stories it is obvious that Yahweh, the God the Hebrews was considered merely first among equals. He was very specifically their god, belonging to no other tribes. Those tribes had their own gods, for instance Baal whose name has now come to mean a false idol, but who clearly has his own power (and his own tribes) in the stories found in the Torah.
That understanding sheds an interesting light on the idea of the Jews as God’s chosen people. Yahweh and the Hebrews had a special relationship; he was their god, and theirs only. Other tribes had other gods. When the idea of monotheism became current the obvious conclusion was that since it was now understood that he had always been the only god, there being now and always only one, and since he had been the god of the Hebrews, they must have been his particular chosen people for whatever reason, the reasons being gone into carefully in various stories in Genesis, and still for some being a topic for theological reflection.
Monotheism has been hailed by modern thinkers and scholars as the greatest single advance in religious thinking ever made. It took a very long time to be established, and in the process it caused a few problems. Even after it became the religion of choice, the other gods continued to exist for a long time as angels, demons or other supernatural individuals. Or, as in the eastern religions, as avatars or aspects of the one divine source. It seems to be difficult, if not impossible, for many people to give up their smaller, more accessible gods. Early Christianity cleverly incorporated many of the most popular local deities of the areas into which it spread into its pantheon of saints.
The difficulty seems to be that people seem to need gods who essentially look and act like them. They often can’t really seem to get a handle on less familiar or more abstract ideas. They look at their own experience which tells them that if something exists it was either born or made and assume, therefore, that someone or something made the world, and the originals of everything in it, and by extension, the universe. Since they perceive themselves as the most creative and powerful creatures (and essentially that is quite true) then the being that made the world and them must be like them only more so. As Clarence Day wrote, “And so Adam created two beings, Jehovah and Satan. Yea, in his own image created he them.” This god is intentional, powerful, willful and creative. Beyond that it has been given other characteristics by various religious thinkers. It has acquired morality. Originally gods were worshipped because in their power and capriciousness they could bring either plenty or want, health or death, to their constituency, who therefore did what they could to get their preferred outcomes. Clearly some of that still exists, but the modern god has standards for human behavior, which cannot be waived, and for which rewards and punishments take the place of former caprice. Sort of a psychological behavior mod god. Sort of, in effect, a parent who has produced you, controls your environment and disciplines you. A papa or mama-in-the-sky.
Well, I haven’t noticed it myself. It seems fairly clear to me that the universe is essentially indifferent to us — not that it ignores us, but that either to pay attention or to ignore is an irrelevant concept. It is the product of what seems to me an exaggerated sense of our own importance in the vastness of the universe, and the hope that, despite evidence to the contrary: undeserved suffering, disease, natural disasters and the like, somebody out there is able and willing to do something about it if we can just figure out how to get him, her or it to act. When things stay just as difficult for us, when the people we pray for die and the dangers we pray to get out of happen anyway, we seldom change our idea of the papa or mama, we just figure it’s somehow our own fault or that it really was for the best anyway. If somehow the suffering is mitigated, God gets the credit. As I say, the evidence for such a god seems to me slim to the point of vanishing, but I can accept the idea on principle. However, if there is such a god, it must be a rather petty one. There are science fiction stories whose premise is that the creator of our world is simply an imperfect being who made a lot of mistakes and doesn’t know quite how to correct them — a child of greater gods, or perhaps one of their less intelligent members. But it seems to me that there are a lot more important things to worry about and far more important ideas to focus our religious life on — even more important than whether such a god exists to take care of us or to decide whether or not we will spend eternity in bliss or torture. Besides, I have my get-out-of-hell-free card.
Throughout human history there have been religious geniuses who have tried to get human beings to think about the divine in somewhat more sophisticated ways. The popular belief always tended and still tends to concern itself with the personal wellbeing of the believer rather than the truth of what is holy. Lao-tse, Socrates, the Buddha, the preacher in Ecclesiastes, Nagarjuna, and in more modern times, Emerson, Whitehead and Tillich have tried to point to the transcendent other which has no personhood, no will, no being, but which informs our being, our will, our personhood for the good. Their god, however named, was far greater than the idols, whether they be real or false, that we set up for our worship.
There are those who suggest that we can only get an inkling of what this holy is by our little personifications and that to try to lead us beyond them is to lead us away from any relationship to god entirely because it takes us beyond our depth. That may be true. Socrates was killed for corrupting the youth of
Yet, such a god seems supremely irrelevant to me. I can’t see any point in worshipping it at all except for personal gain, and surely that is a rather unworthy reason for worship. And that, I think, is the danger of the papa or mama-in-the-sky idea. It may even be true, if you like, but it leads us to concentrate on that person, that personal god, and what he or she can do for us rather than on what is of real significance, on what is holy. It can also sometimes persuade us that we can turn over the responsibility for our lives to god rather than to ourselves and to one another.
I don’t really believe that you have to be a religious genius like the ones I mentioned earlier to get beyond being and personhood and still have faith in the transcendent. I believe we sell ourselves short when we say that that is the only thing anyone will buy. My sense, at least of those who become Unitarian Universalists, is that we can see beyond those constructs to the good, to truth, to love and justice, to community, to beauty and courage and faith and commitment, to the ideals which transcend any idea of a personal god. The concept of a personal god may be intended to stand for those ideals, but too often its personhood implies intention and will for us and we fall into the trap of expecting it to do something about our problems and often being disappointed.