DrJ's Current Thoughts about Religion and Spirituality

This is a long overdue revision of my written thoughts about religion. It is not that my thoughts about religion have changed all that much since I wrote my first page about religion. It is just that it seemed to me that there are so many things that I did not say in my original statement on religion that people who read it might get wrong impression of my religious attitudes. So here is the 2013 update.

First, I want to express complete agreement with pastor Samir Selmanovic's opinion that religions can be fruitfully seen as what he calls "God Management Systems." By this, Selmanovic means that every religion—particularly the three major monotheistic religions—are attempts to render an infinite God into finite terms that we limited human beings can understand and feel comfortable about. Every religion, by necessity, will fall short because God is infinite and human thought is finite. This is not a reason to give up religion, says Selmanovic, but we should give up that idea that our own religion has it all figured out and that any person who does not subscribe to our religion is wrong. This attitude leads to lack of love and respect between people of different religious inclinations. Which is highly ironic, since one of the basic messages of most religions is to respect and love everyone. This attitude also leads to worshiping the scriptures and rituals of one's own religion instead of worshiping God. It is good to belong to a religion, says Selmanovic, as long as it does not become an end in itself, but as an imperfect path toward God. After all, according to the name of his book, It's Really All About God—not all about your particular religion.

Next, none of the descriptions I have read or heard about from any religion has made enough sense to me to lead me to say, "Yes, that is something I might be able to believe." But that is something I could have predicted, based on the fact that any description in limited human words of an infinite, perfect God is going to be inadequate. For starters, any description that ascribes human emotions and desires to God makes no sense to me. Love, joy, anger, disgust, etc. are emotional states that motivate us to engage in or avoid activities that impact on our survival. God doesn't need emotions. Being eternal (if that is in fact a characteristic of God), God doesn't need to worry about survival. God doesn't need to worry about anything. If God is perfect and complete, God wants for nothing. Desire indicates a lack of something. If I do not have something I want, then I desire it. A perfect God lacks nothing and therefore desires nothing. God does not desire us to love or worship him and does not get angry or sad if we fail to do so. God does not desire that we follow a particular set of rules. God does not get angry and feel a desire to punish us if we break rules. These are things that human beings feel and do. We create rules. We get angry at people who do not follow them and we want to punish them. Ascribing these qualities to God is what psychologists call projection—attributing our own state of mind to another person. To me, it is an unacceptable contradiction to believe in an infinite, perfect God who is bogged down in human emotions.

I have serious difficulties understanding what "God's will" could possibly mean. When we talk about our own will, we mean intentionally choosing to do something that we believe will bring about what we desire. But if God desires nothing, what could "God's will" possibly mean? A similar concept I have trouble with is the notion that "God has a plan for us." When we make a plan, we believe that following certain steps will lead us to a goal that we desire. But, again, if God is already perfect and desires nothing, this means he desires no goals for us and therefore has no need for a plan for us to reach these goals. Goal-setting, planning, and willing are all things that human beings do when we feel incomplete or imperfect and cannot accept things exactly as they are. A perfect God would not have a human-like will or human-like plans. That is again something that I think humans project onto God.

Because nearly all Gods that have ever been described to me are said to have human qualities, which does not square with the notion that God is infinite, complete, and perfect, that is why I say that I am a-theistic ("without a belief in God") toward most Gods that have ever been described to me. Any allegedly infinite, complete, perfect God that experiences human emotions, has a will, and makes plans would be a contradiction in terms. I wouldn't say that I am atheistic about all possible Gods, though. There might be a God that is not a contradiction in terms. For example, there might be a very powerful being, maybe an advanced, evolved being from the future, who is not perfect and infinite, but still has incredible powers such as the ability to time-travel, to be invisible, to move near the speed of light, to read our thoughts, to move massive things at a distance, and so forth. Maybe it even experiences human-like feelings and therefore does favors for people it is pleased with and punishes people it does not like. Sounds a lot like some Gods I've heard of, expect that it isn't infinitely omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-loving. But maybe such a being would be God-like enough to consider it God. Of course I haven't seen any evidence or good argument for such a God and therefore I do not believe it exists. I can't believe without evidence or a convincing argument. But, potentially, I could believe in such a God.

I could also potentially believe in a completely transcendent God that is totally removed from our physical universe and does not interact with it in any way. Maybe it created this universe and maybe it did not. I've heard people espouse belief in such a God, particularly followers of Vedantic thought. Such a God is definitely less paradoxical and self-contradictory than the Gods described by mainstream, monotheistic religions, and is therefore worthy of consideration. But I've never heard a convincing argument that such a transcendent God actually exists nor have I seen any evidence for one (How could I?).

I could conceivably believe in the kind of God described by mystics as "ineffable," a God that can be experienced but not put into words. This sort of God at least avoids the problem of describing in limited words an unlimited God. I've even had what appeared to me to be mystical experiences, a feeling of being one with the infinite. The trouble is, I don't know whether to interpret the experiences as something real or just some kind of brain seizure. After all, epileptics report experiences that are identical to those described by mystics. Then, again, maybe epileptics are experiencing God. Who knows?

There could be other Gods, as well, that I have not heard about or imagined that, at least potentially, I could believe in. Some day, I might even believe in your God, if you could explain how the contradictions I perceive are just a misunderstanding, or how the descriptions about your God that I have read are admittedly imperfect and do not do your God justice. See, to me, being an atheist does not mean being absolutely certain that there never have been and never can be any kind of God. It just means that I currently lack belief in any Gods I've heard about so far. That could always change.

As far as my feelings about religions go, my experience has been that religion plays mostly a positive role in the lives of most of the people I have met. If that is the case for you, I would have absolutely no desire to try to talk you out of your beliefs and practices. On the other hand, both of us are aware of hideously horrible things that have been inspired by religious thoughts and feelings. Terrorists blowing up people. Mothers who drown their children. Holy wars. Burning people at the stake. Or simple hatred and discrimination toward people who do not share your religion. Or learning to feel like you are a worthless sinner, constantly wracked by guilt and fear of eternal damnation. I am not anti-religion. But I am anti- some of the things done in the name of religion, and am therefore very sympathetic to the concerns religious critics such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

For me, spirituality is an issue separate from religion (even thought the two can go together), and one that does not have to be incompatible with being an atheist. I consider myself to be a spiritual person. By this, I do not mean I believe in spirits or ghosts or gods. My spirituality represents an interest in dimensions of reality that are beyond our senses and rational minds. I do not have a strong belief or conviction in the existence or nature of these dimensions. It's more like having a nagging suspicion that there is some level or reality that is spectacularly beyond the reality we perceive with our senses or conceive with science. For most of my life, I have considered the Tao referred to by Lao Tzu as a spiritual reality worth considering. More recently, books by Don Miguel Ruiz have rekindled my interest in the world of the nagual, which I first read about in Carlos Castaneda's books back in the 1970s. As the article you can access from the link says,

"nagual refers to the idea of the unknown and unknowable. Nagual in this sense is the sea of possibility that surrounds all forms. It is intrinsically beyond form. If something can be named, it is not the nagual, it is a part of the tonal. Nagual is beyond description. We could compare it to the Eastern Tao in the sense that anything that can be described is not it."

At the present time I find both the Tao and nagual to be the most compelling spiritual concepts I have encountered in my life, compelling enough to engage in Taoist and Toltec practices. As a member of the Al-Anon 12-step program for over two years, I have found that the Tao/nagual has served me well as the "God of my understanding" or "Higher Power."

Written between August 31, 2010 and January 31, 2013
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John A. Johnson