Getting involved in online discussions has brought yet again to my attention how poorly the concept of god is often utilized and how unfortunate it is that those of us of a different spiritual persuasion assume as legitimate what fundamentalists often end up screaming about in their hand-made signs and thunder about from their pulpits that too often serve as political platforms.
I made the mistake in my extended history with fundamentalism and search through apologetics and religious philosophy to assume I knew everything the other side had to offer, to paint them with all the casual brush strokes I’d be taught. When I de-converted it was in no small part due to realizing just how badly the other points of view were being characterized and asked myself: if this were truth, why is there a seeming pathological inability to understand competing points? In my years post-faith I delved into a more militant style of atheism and frankly found much the same ideological shortcomings, people so incensed at the frankly well-established errors in religious ideology that everything was thrown out and concepts weren’t carefully parsed.
While there are those who are accurate, mostly, in pointing to the god of western philosophers as being a speculative form based upon monotheistic thinking, it is not accurate to say that it is precisely the same god being addressed, as even a rudimentary reading of Kant, Descartes and Spinoza will indicate. Merely basing one’s speculation upon old or largely bad ideas in no way demands subsequent articulations to be dismissed, no more than much of the science we have today should be ignored simply because it came from false ideas that were tweaked and revamped. The brilliance of Thomas Kuhn was not in pointing out that science is completely subjective and relative (a misunderstanding far too many people have of his thinking) but that science, like any means of understanding the world, operates from the perspectival basis of human cognition and hence is open to recalibration through the careful enunciation of new paradigms. When we were children we thought there lived monsters under the bed, as adults we know this to not be true, and yet do any of us mock a child in his fears or do we hold them and attempt explaining later, all the while knowing that development is more than physical but mental as well?
I think it best to point out that the concept of god is not a singular thing, there are various truth claims or references in play. What is often conflated for atheists/humanists is the references or claims towards metaphysics, forgetting that there are also claims towards ethics and ways of relating to life as well, among others. While certainly most religious apologists wish us to combine them all making their job, at least in their own minds, easier, it is certainly not a requirement of us to fall for it or accept their premises. Besides which, are we really going to claim that religion has done absolutely nothing good in any way for any individual or humanity at large? Shall we ignore the cohesiveness it often brings or the sense of peace or feeling of transcendence that those calling themselves atheists or humanists or pagans or some other often achieve by connecting with nature? Noting the positives of an experience does not mean we must accept the entire framing of the situation or accept what one ideology claims about everything else.
When I refer to god I am not making any particular metaphysical claims, nor am I making any specific, as of yet, ethical claims. God here is not a person, however much our language tends to point that way, nor is god an active force with intent guiding reality, at least in any way that is contrary to the active causal forces that already guide and shape us. That god in this way could be identified as the totality of those physical forces simply indicates that we live in a causal universe, one that acts from the premise of cause/effect relationships or karma as the buddhist would call it.
Ken Wilber in his integral philosophy notes that there are varying nests of being, of contemplation, of analysis which require varying modes of truth testing and so on. For instance, no amount of neurology is going to make me understand fully the first-person phenomenology that another goes through, to do so completely would be to be that person and thus defeat the attempt. We instead use dialogue, questions, narrative framing and so on to build a means of ascertaining the truth of any declaration of felt feels. It’s what talk therapy is mainly about and the efficacy of its findings is found in the millions of people who have found real peace through its proper utilization.
The god here is of a nest far afield, one that holds all others not in a necessarily causal fashion but as a cognitive device much like the field of geology holds together, like an umbrella, various sub-fields of research. There is no such thing as just studying geology, it can always be broken down to a specialization and with it will often use its own language or terms that are not helpful in a different specialization though assuredly they can be integrated.
There is no association or equivocation between god and physics or any other physical science, this is the god of contemplation and meditation, a heuristic device only. It offers a way of framing felt feels and a sense of the transcendence that, however much neurology we may discover is likely to never equate to the experience itself, no more than a full analysis of a hurricane will provide for us the experience of what it feels to be in one. Though clearly a growing understanding of neurology, physics, psychology, and so on can help us better articulate and frame our phenomenological experience such that we do not fall victim to the great many errors we as homo sapiens are prone to.
It is well and good to analyze and take apart the error-ridden claims of religious ideology, like any other other thinking, but we all must and should answer to reason and the careful articulation of the scientific enterprise. However, we portray ourselves as lacking in nuance and thus shortchange our ability to understand the fullness of the human situation when we think and accept as wholly accurate a simple common understanding of spiritual concepts rather than, as good creators of intention that we are, filling in ideas with what we’d like and using them accordingly.