What is it that I DO believe?.

 Eckhart 1260-1328

“Strip yourselves of the images and unite with the formless…” —Meister Eckhart

I never feel that I am—or even could—deny the existence of ultimate reality (that one thing which would explain all other things) but rather the use of the word God as a synonym for ultimate reality. This is because the terms that are used to describe God are problematic. Take the word supernatural, for example. Nearly everyone who believes in God envisions God as either having energy or being energy, yet energy is a natural force, so how can God be supernatural? Yet, what would it mean to say that God is natural? Would it mean that God occupies a certain spot within the universe or simply that—as the pantheists believe—God is synonymous with the universe?

Another way to describe God is to say that God is a spirit. The dictionary defines spirit as a supernatural being, but it defines a supernatural being as a spirit. So it is that, in defining God, one indescribable word is used to define another indescribable word, yet we can only meaningfully affirm the existence of that which we can describe. To view it from the atheist perspective, we can only deny the existence of that which we can describe, as would be the case with a purple schnauzer or a winged kangaroo. So it’s not God that many atheists deny, but rather the claim that the concept of God is meaningful.

Maimonides 1135-1204
Moses Maimonides and others have tried to get around the problem by claiming that one can only speak of God in terms of what God is not. For example, God is not temporal; God is not encased within a body; God is not capable of evil; and so forth. The idea is that any attempt to say what God is represents an attempt to corral the infinite within the intelligence of the finite. For instance, if you say that God knows everything, you can then start checking off a list of what God knows until you reach the end of your knowledge, and are left with “etc.” (God knows how to fry an egg; God knows how pencils are made; God knows how many stars are in the Milky Way…etc.).

It is therefore claimed that the only realistic and respectful way to speak of God is in negatives, yet even this suggests that at least some things can be known about God, but the truth is that any statement we make about God limits God because if God is (or isn’t) one way, then God must necessarily be (or not be) the opposite way. For example, if God can’t do evil, there is at least one thing we can do that God can’t. Then, there is the old speculation about whether God can make a stone too heavy for God to lift. If God can, then God’s strength is limited; but if God can’t, God’s creative ability is limited. So it is that when we try to talk about God, we run into one vagueness or contradiction after another, and this is what I meant when I wrote that it’s not God that atheists deny but the belief that the concept of God is intelligible. Yet, all of Christendom goes on its merry way imaging itself to know all kinds of things about God. But does it do more honor to God to say, as the pope does, that he knows a lot about God or, as atheists do, that all human concepts of God are unintelligible?

As I use it, the term ultimate reality isn’t a substitute for the word God because it lacks consciousness except inasmuch as it is conscious through you, me, my cat, Brewsky, and the squirrel outside the window. All of these things constitute ultimate reality, so if you use the word God as a metaphor for ultimate reality, then you might say that I'm God writing this, you're God reading it, and Brewksy and the squirrel are God watching each other... 

Just as our knowledge of gravity enables us to understand and tie together many seemingly disparate facts, an understanding of ultimate reality would enable us to understand and tie together all facts. It would tell us where the universe—and therefore ourselves—came from and where it is going. My faith consists of believing that such answers exist, and that if my species survives long enough to find them, they will come through rational research. Mine is the same optimism that is implicit in science and metaphoric in liberal religion. As the hymn goes, “Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why. Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine. We’ll understand it all by and by.” I think this might be true.

If you worship God, what is it that attracts you to God? If it is your belief that God loves you, how would you feel if you learned that the nearest thing to God is a formula that doesn’t even know you exist? That is how I feel. We humans create God in our own image  so we can look to God for love, meaning, and safety, but also so we can have someone to admire so completely that our admiration becomes worship. If ultimate reality is without consciousness, it can’t give our lives love, meaning, or safety, and we can’t worship it, at least not in the same way we would worship a conscious entity. As for our eventual knowledge of it, my species might never get there, but I’ll most certainly be dead before it does. 

Some people are tied to talk of God because it comforts them; I’m tied to it despite the fact that it brings me no comfort. Perhaps, this means that my religion is more pure; I really don’t know. It must sound strange for me to say this, but I don’t care. This is simply who I am. I ask for no help; I pass no judgment upon myself; and I wouldn’t choose to be in any way different. I consider my life inevitable, and I am content with it. My thoughts and my writing are my reward, and they are a considerable reward. Peggy used to love mountain climbing despite the fact that it made her cold and dizzy and caused her to vomit. She also saw other climbers have terrible accidents, yet she would come home burned and exhausted and talking about rewarding it all was. I am the same way.

I believe that a worthwhile use of religion is to keep us filled with wonder as we reflect upon that which we do not know. Religion too often does the opposite. The Islamic State doesn’t kill people because it humbly admits its ignorance of ultimate reality but because it imagines itself to be on intimate terms with an ultimate reality that is male, violent, and gives harems to martyrs. But not all versions of God are harmful. For example, some religious people are non-dogmatic and practice good works. Others are more selfish, but still innocuous. For example, they thank God for their food (at least occasionally), ask for his help when they’re sick, and imagine that his angels are guarding them while they sleep.

I can’t believe such things, so the best I’ve been able to do since my early teens was to go through the motions of religious ritual. I need this ritual, so I reduce it to metaphor and that enables me to be somewhat at peace with it. When something won’t let go, there’s nothing to do but to surrender to it, but I am clear that what I’m surrendering to isn’t God but to my need that there be a God despite the fact that I consider the existence of such a being impossible. Alongside the objections I’ve already raised, I have an even bigger problem with believing in God, and it is this: even if there could exist an all-good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful divine being (aka God), such a being could not exist in conjunction with evil and suffering. Anytime evil is done or a suffering occurs, the concept of a perfect deity is negated. The actions of a perfect God would necessarily result in the existence of a perfect universe.

Bonnie Blue 1997-2013
Those whom, despite it all, can believe in a perfect God remind me of something my heeler, Bonnie Blue, did late one night while she and I sitting in a parked car waiting for Peggy to get off work. When I finally saw Peggy, I said, “Bonnie! Where’s Peggy?” and Bonnie’s intelligent eyes became a study in concentration as she gazed into my own eyes, tilting her head this way and that while considering where to look. To my complete astonishment, she finally jumped down and looked under the seat. I too would like to have faith that the world is so delightfully magical that Peggy might pop out from under car seats, but I can’t and, because I can’t, I wouldn’t wish to because I don’t want to waste time looking for Peggy in shoe boxes. 

Many intelligent people believe things that I consider just as impossible. Why they believe is obvious, but how they believe is incomprehensible. I feel drawn to such people by a shared need, not by a shared belief. By contrast, most atheists don’t appear to experience such needs, so although I am as non-believing as they, I don’t feel that I belong among them. Unfortunately, theists have made it clear that I don’t belong among them either.

Part II
“Jew and Atheist”

The following is from the 1656 expulsion of 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza from his synagogue because of his radical theology and criticisms of the Bible:

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law…And we hereby warn you that none may communicate with him by word of mouth or writing, nor show him any charity whatsoever, nor stay with him under one roof, nor come into his company, nor read any composition made or written by him.”

Spinoza must have been an exemplar of non-attachment because he was unfazed by his expulsion from family, friends, and community: “…this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord had I not been afraid of a scandal.” He refused to teach because he knew it would limit his freedom, and instead made his living as a lens’ grinder, happily passing his life writing philosophy in a small apartment, and dying of silicosis at age 44. Religious people called him an atheist, and scholars ridiculed his geometry-inspired approach to truth. Only romantics praised him because they were inspired by his courage, passion, and devotion to ultimate reality, and I’m a romantic. It’s one thing to love a deity that promises you heaven, but quite another to love an ultimate reality that lacks consciousness except inasmuch as you and I are conscious. Such was Spinoza’s God, and such is my ultimate reality. I just wish I could love it as he did.