One of my hot buttons is the use of the word ‘God’. I’m a non-theist, perhaps even an atheist. I have great difficulty understanding what religious people think they are doing when they pray to, or worship, God. Yet deep within me there is a sense that without some feeling for the sacred we live less than full lives.
I have found Don Cupitt’s writing helpful if a bit theoretical. So my search continues.
Now comes this morning from The Centre for Progressive Christianity in the US, a newsletter featuring two very interesting pieces about ‘God Talk'.
Fred Plumer, president of TCPC, has written a very interesting piece ‘God Talk’,
and Michael Morwood, another interesting piece ‘Progressive Christians and God Talk’.
These are well worth reading and thinking about. I’ll be doing that and, perhaps, coming to some conclusions about the sacred for me.
Scott commented: “I have great difficulty understanding what religious people think they are doing when they pray to, or worship, God.”
They are, to begin with, simply talking to their ‘imaginary friend’. I have an imaginary friend. His name is Ivan Karamazov. He is a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. Ivan has been my guide for most of my life. He is my major identification. Some people ask, “What would Jesus do?” Instead, I ask, “What would Ivan do?” Or rather, “What would Ivan think?” as Ivan’s actions are often paralysed by his inner conflicts. Yes, Ivan is a flawed character like his creator, Dostoyevsky. Ridden with inner conflicts, just like myself. But his conflicts are his, and not mine. So his advice is not always appropriate.
Does Ivan see me as his friend? I doubt it. Often his reactions to my thoughts, motives and actions are ones of scathing contempt.
Nevertheless, I am not silly enough to believe that Ivan exists. Yet he does have an existence of sorts. He exists as a fictional character in a novel, as well as a fictional character in my imagination. So in this latter sense he does exist. But what would it mean for him to exist in the first sense? He would have to have a separate existence in a ghostly immaterial form. Or alternatively, this ghostly existence could have a material manifestation. Either way, this is treating the imaginary as real, and would have to be labelled as ‘supernatural’. And this is what Scott’s ‘religious people’ have done.
However, they go further. They endow their imaginary friend with additional super-natural powers. The power to protect them, to heal them, to grant them salvation. And, to top it off with an excruciatingly childish belief in wish-fulfilment, to find them car-parking spaces. The pleas to their imaginary friends to utilise these powers for the pleader’s benefit, are what is known as ‘worship’.
Posted by David Miller
David Miller comments further - 1st January 2010
Since my previous post (above), it has been pointed out to me that I am being somewhat unfair about the all-too-human activity of ‘worshipping’. I accept this criticism as fair-comment. In an effort to make amends, I am adding the following edited version of a previous posting in which I defended the concepts of worship, religion and the gods:
There has often been discussion on whether we are secular people rather than religious people. The problem, it seems to me, is that we tend to conflate ‘religion’ and the ‘supernatural’. Such confusion is normal within our everyday language. The two words have almost become synonymous. I suggest that we begin the attempt to be more precise. Even if our attempts lead us in different directions, it will at least be illuminating.
Admittedly, historically, the gods have usually been portrayed as possessing supernatural powers. Yet God and the gods are merely symbols for our ‘greatest principles’. These symbols are usually metaphorical personifications with supernatural powers added on. However, if we remove those powers, there need then be nothing supernatural in this usage. Does that surprise you? Let us take an example. Both theists and atheists occasionally refer to ‘Mother Nature’ as a symbol for nature. Mother Nature is a metaphorical personification of nature. There is no supernaturalism implied in this. She is not treated as a god. Personification is not deification.
How would we go about turning Mother Nature into a god? We would have to give her supernatural powers. For example, we could say that she created nature. That would be sufficient to deify her. However, that would immediately be seen as somewhat erroneous. Mother Nature is merely a symbol for nature. Nature is the reality, Mother Nature the symbol. How can the symbol create the very reality that the symbol symbolizes? It is a category mistake. Yet when we use the generalized symbol ‘God’, our cultural conditioning blinds us to such errors of category confusion as are contained in the commonly heard claim that, “God created everything”.
Religions have been contaminated by this association with the supernatural for tens of thousands of years. Hence the common usage we usually find in our dictionaries. That is, unless you find one, like the Macquarie, that includes within its list of definitions – “the quest for the values of the ideal life”.
Let me start by asserting that, in supernaturalist terms, we do not worship a religion. We worship the gods. Religion is our means of worshipping our gods. Religion is our tool, our method of worship. However, I wish to contend that religions need not necessarily be supernatural, and that supernaturalism does not have to be the basis of religion.
I am claiming that religion is, at base, the worship of our ‘greatest principles’. In an attempt to remove the supernaturalist baggage we could, instead, say that religion is the ‘revering’ of our greatest principles. Or - better still – religion is the means we utilize to ‘venerate’ our greatest principles. Put the other way round: if we wish to venerate our greatest principles, we find (or invent) an appropriate religion with which to do so.
What ought to constitute a religion? Let us begin to look at some of the requirements. First, as already mentioned, is the reverence and veneration of our greatest principles. Second is the apprehension and realization of our greatest principles; in simpler words, getting to know and understand them. Third is the manifestation and actualization of our greatest principles; in simpler words, bringing them into being in our world, both in ourselves as well as in others.
So, if our greatest principles involve no supernatural elements, then our means of venerating them, our religions, need no supernatural methods either. ‘But what are these greatest principles?’ I hear you asking. I will respond by listing the wide-ranging variety of answers humankind has given to that question.
1. Our highest values - e.g. Goodness, truth, beauty.
2. Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, justice, freedom, creativity etc.
3. Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, oneness, interconnectedness etc.
4. Our areas of ultimate concern – e.g. Self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe etc.
As you can see, all are completely natural. There is nothing supernatural about any of them.
Some people prefer to symbolize their particular set of principles in the form of a metaphorical personification. Unfortunately, most people throughout history have given supernatural powers to these symbols. Nevertheless, it is possible to hold principles without personifying them, as well as holding personifications without deifying them.
So, in conclusion, I hope that I have begun to show that there is a sense in which I can refute the claim that we are secular and not religious. In my terms, we are both secular and religious. We all find means to venerate our greatest principles.
Posted by David Miller
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