I’ve said many times before that I’m an atheist.1 That is, I do not credit the existence of any supernatural being, any intelligence or cause of action, which stands outside of time and the laws of physics, controls the birth and direction of the universe, and responds to the actions, prayers, pleadings, and moral consequences of human beings here on Earth. But that does not mean I necessarily think people who do believe in an actual, living, personal god are foolish, deluded, or less discerning. Rather, I imagine I lack some gene for the neurological mechanism which lets people perceive a spiritual world beyond their physical senses and respond to invisible beings outside themselves, whether gods, angels, devils, or some other manifestation of this spiritual world.
That also does not mean I would discredit the historical, literary, or social importance of this vision of a god or gods as having a powerful affect on people’s decisions, imaginations, and actions. Something exists that drives human belief, and as a rational, thinking animal I must react to and account for it.
I can accept a god or gods not as actual spiritual beings apart from us, but as the embodiment of humanity’s, or a society’s, or a person’s highest conception of “the good.” And by good I mean all of the things a human being can value and strive for that preserve us from chaos, evil intent, and personal futility and annihilation. Among the underpinnings of “the good,” I would place ideas of reciprocity and fairness between people; of justice and karmic retribution with regard to actions; of loving kindness and acceptance in dealing with individuals who do not happen to be our own kith and kin; of striving against and persevering in the face of adversity; and of sharing with and giving to those who are in need. Without these attributes, we are no more than wolves tearing at the stranger’s throat with our teeth while trying to disembowel him with our claws.
In this sense, a god is an ideal for the individual to strive to attain. This god is a vision, not of humanity as the big-brained, thin-skinned, opposable-thumbed animal that we physically and biologically happen to be, but as the perfectible, spiritual, inspired creatures that our expanded intellect, refined emotional sensitivity, personal sense of self-awareness, and future-oriented projective capacity promise we might become.
Concepts of godliness, of higher striving, of right and wrong action, of charity and forgiveness, and all the other attributes of “the good” are a powerful tool for breaking the wolf-spirit that lives in every human child and training that young, self-centered mental and emotional complex to become an accepting, committed, and useful member of his or her society. Perhaps other means exist to achieve this transformation—perhaps through pure rationality and observations drawn from the laws of mathematics and physics—but none is so directly applicable to the human psyche as instilling the belief in an all-powerful parent figure who exists apart from the individual’s biological and humanly fallible parents, who demands right action and good intention from each of us, and who will punish wrongdoing and bad intentions in ways beyond our immediate observation and testing. That is, a spirit in the sky whom you cannot see or question directly, who demands your obedience and, if you don’t comply, will send you to a burning place for all eternity in that unknown time after you die.
Once the individual as a child has absorbed and internalized these teachings—the precepts of right and wrong, forgiveness, charity, and all the rest that comprise “the good”—and so become a stable, contributing member of his or her society, then the mythology of the omniscient parent figure can be allowed to fade under the weight of doubts, counterarguments, and cynical observations which we acquire through comparative education, critical thinking, and emotional testing. The teachings will still exist, and the emerging adolescent and ultimately the adult will know what the “good” is without needing to be constantly reminded of an all-seeing supernatural watcher or the prospect of an eternity in burning fire.
Something similar to this idea is found in Buddhism with the concept of a person’s “Buddha nature.” This is the core person, the undefiled person, the being that lives deep in our consciousness, beneath our changing opinions, random ideas, and restless seeking after advantage. This deep being is naturally attuned to the universe and its ways. It is receptive to ideas of reciprocity, balance, acceptance, peace, loving kindness, and other elements of “the good.” This is the person we were meant to be before we became enmeshed in the chaotic disturbances and passions of life and went off to pursue vain and fanciful things. Buddha nature allows any human being to reach enlightenment.
The difference between these two conceptions—Buddha nature and the internalized godhead of “the good”—is that the internalized god is something the child has to be taught in order to separate him or her from the toddler’s demanding wolf-spirit, while Buddha nature is supposedly something every human being is born with and which exists apart from his or her socialization. I can live with this unresolved difference, although I find it hard to imagine how a child raised by wolves and retaining the wolf-spirit would ever uncover that supposedly preexisting and peaceful Buddha nature. I think the process would be much easier if one were instead raised by Buddhists.
In this view of god as internalized precepts of “the good,” what purpose does prayer then serve? Certainly, the kinds of prayer that resemble pleading and petitioning a supernatural being who stands outside time and the laws of physics have no effect. “Please send me a pony.” “Please don’t let it rain on my wedding day.” “Please help my little sister recover from fever.” All such requests, attempting to alter the chains of cause and effect, tempered by probability and random chance, which govern human affairs, are in vain. But such thoughts do serve to focus the mind on what the individual actually wants or should want, remind him or her of the things that are really important and necessary, and frame the mind to accept—through reference to those internalized notions of “the good”—what is actually going to happen.
Prayer as personal reflection, as the search for guidance during times of trouble, as the seeking after acceptance and peace—this kind of prayer is a direct reference to those internalized ideals. These prayers are the person asking to be reminded of what he or she already knows and may have temporarily forgotten. They are a reference to our higher natures and the conception of human beings as closer to gods and angels than to dumb, suffering brutes.
The god I can believe in is a reflection of the human psyche and the processes that bend it from the wild, self-centered, animal nature of the just-born human into a temperate, socialized, reflective member of an interdependent group, and then a person on the way to becoming wise. This is a god who has no extant form but exists in the imagination inside the human mind. And that is a far more powerful place from which to operate than any existence outside of time, the laws of physics, and the human frame of reference.
1. See also Believer or Seeker? from December 29, 2013, A New God for the Scientific Age from May 26, 2013, and What I Believe from March 25, 2012.