Immanence, transcendence, and cannibalistic pedophiles

A question that I should think would interest both theists and atheists—although I doubt that it interests either very much—is whether God is immanent or transcendent. You’re probably wondering how such a question could possibly be relevant to an atheist, so please indulge me as I describe three very different ways of thinking about God.

1) Jews, Christians, and Moslems see God as transcendent, by which they mean that he is a discrete spiritual being that exists independently of the physical universe. God is not us, and we are not God. God is the greater; we are the lesser; and that’s the way it will always be, on earth as it is in heaven.

2) Some immanent religions regard our lives and the universe itself as like so many dreams in the mind of God, dreams from which we (God) will someday awaken and recollect our true identity. This would be a beautiful way to look at things, if it were true, although I would wonder why God needed sleep, much less REM sleep, and why God would allow itself to have the kind of nightmarish dreams that many earthly lives represent—those of a cannibalistic pedophile and his victims, for example.

3) Other immanent religions believe that God and the universe are one and the same, suggesting that there was no purposeful creation, and that our relationship to God is like that of a drop of water to the ocean. 

The third option is consistent with atheism because it doesn’t require a belief in the supernatural and because atheists would agree that our identity as separate persons is but a brief pause in the eternal movement of all-pervasive energy, an infinitesimal part of which constitutes our beings for an infinitesimal amount of time. Twenty years ago, I joined two lodges (the IOOF and the Freemasons) simply by changing my religion label from atheist to pantheist. I tried to find some intrinsic reward in doing this, but my conclusion was that for millions of people to take a word—God in this instance—and define it in hundreds, if not thousands, of ways, makes the word meaningless. 

So it is that I consider the pantheistic use of the word God to be meaningless, and, in actuality, any expression of belief in God is meaningless in the absence of further explanation. Believing in the existence of God isn’t like believing in the existence of dogs, the latter being a belief that has agreed upon meanings which are more or less expansive but don’t contradict one another. As for the former, Obama, Gandhi, bin Laden, Schweitzer, Spinoza, Pat Robertson, and the Spanish Grand Inquisitor, all believed in God, but the God of each made the Gods of the rest impossible.

Next to the words for God, the word spiritual is probably the most used word among religious people. Ironically, if spirituality is defined as a state of intense and ongoing reflection on what it means to be alive, I’m a very spiritual person. The problem with me calling myself spiritual is the same as with me calling myself theistic. It’s simply too confusing to throw myself into the same soup as a Jain, a liberal Christian, a militant Islamist, a Jehovah’s Witness, and millions of others who are convinced that they and they alone can define words like God and spirituality correctly. Of all the religion-oriented labels I’ve experimented with over time, atheist fits me best. It takes the supposedly higher wisdom that, “God [and, by implication, spirituality] is that about which nothing can be said,” and it says nothing. It just looks at life with wonder because that’s really all there is for us in the brief flash in the darkness that constitutes our existence.

It is very hard for me to imagine that the flash will soon be over for me, and I would like it very much if, instead of no longer existing, I awakened after death to find that I had been God all along, and that my earthly life had been but a dream in which I denied my own existence. But courage lies in going where the evidence takes us, no matter how much we would like it to take us somewhere else, and I have done that. It is only believers, many believers anyway, whose mouths say they believe but whose lives say they don’t, and it is only believers who pray, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.” 

For what freedom is worth, I am free of all that. Yet, just as I see religious people as being prisoners to religion, I see all people as being prisoners to one thing or another, and I also see all people as being prisoners to life itself. The older I get, and the more I suffer from chronic pain, the more I realize just how cold, dark, and dank some of the cells within life’s prison can be. When I was younger and had my health, I could at least can find reason to hope that there might be better days ahead, but the time has come when I realize that those days, such as they were, have passed. As dire as this sounds, it has had the advantage of pushing my focus ever more inward. We all play the role of Don Quixote to our own lives, and this means that we are each our single greatest hero and our most pathetic fool.