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As a believer, I had quite a few occasions to update my religious beliefs, to say the least. It was a long process and had a lot of different stages; I didn’t just go straight from Christianity to nonbelief in one giant leap. Rather, it was more like slowly coming down a ladder one step at a time. I started off just conceding a relatively minor belief or two, reassuring myself that although X might not have been true after all, I had at least been justified in believing it because the more fundamental belief Y was still true. Then later on, I conceded that, all right, Y might not have been true either, but I had still been justified in believing it because, after all, the more fundamental belief Z was still true. And on and on I went, conceding one marginal belief at a time, until I’d retreated all the way from fundamentalist Christianity to moderate Christianity to a kind of soft deism. In isolation, each individual step down the ladder made perfect sense – and often it even felt like each new insight was making my faith stronger than ever – but in the end, when all those steps finally added up, I found that I’d reached the bottom of the ladder without ever originally intending to.
Ultimately, I finally felt forced to conclude that my belief in a personal God – i.e. a God with a particular personality, with particular desires, with particular likes and dislikes, and so on – was just a lingering remnant of my former belief in Christianity, not an idea that could independently hold up under its own strength. Once I realized that, my perspective shifted yet again, and I started to think of God not so much as a human-like being, but more as a kind of ineffable, all-permeating life energy – sort of like the Force in Star Wars. There wasn’t necessarily an invisible white-bearded man up in the sky, I concluded; instead, there was a universal life force that animated all of us and bound us all together, and when we died, we would return to that force and become one with it again.
As I settled into this idea and started thinking more deeply about the nature of this universal life force, I started exploring the question of what this force actually was, and eventually I had what felt like a monumental revelation: This universal force was love. All these years, I’d been saying “God is love” without a second thought, but it never occurred to me that this phrase might actually be literal. Now, though, I realized that God wasn’t just an embodiment of love; God was the force of love itself – a benevolent energy that permeated everything in the universe. And the same thing applied to the phrase “God is good” – it wasn’t just that the word “good” described God; the two words were synonyms. God was the force of goodness itself; anything that had goodness within it had the presence of God within it.
Of course, as revelatory as this idea felt to me at the time, it wasn’t exactly original. There are plenty of people who think of God in similar terms, equating him with concepts like goodness and wonder and beauty and so on. Frank Lloyd Wright put it most memorably when he said, “I believe in God, only I spell it ‘Nature.’” Albert Einstein had a similar view, describing himself as a “deeply religious nonbeliever.” And millions more people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” believe the same thing.
Evid3nc3 describes the feeling of discovering this idea for himself:
For the first time in my life, I realized that there was something more important to me than God – and that was truth. And for the first time in my life, I learned that if I had to choose between God and truth, I would choose truth. Before, I had placed God and truth on the same level, as if they were equals. But I now began to realize that truth was necessarily a greater good than God – because it was possible for God not to exist, but it was not possible for truth not to exist. And this made truth God’s master and ultimate judge. The state of the truth determined whether God even existed. If God’s existence did not match the state of truth, then the entire concept of God was worthless; it would simply fall into the graveyard of false ideas. But truth itself would carry on. Truth did not need God to function. Its potential to transform and shape the world held its own power.
But what was the truth about God?
Theism defines God as both the creator of the universe and an intervening force in that universe. It also defines God as personal, meaning that God is a person – a being, separate from the universe he created. Having faced my fear of losing God and survived it, I allowed myself, for the first time in my life, to really look at the concept and ask: Is this true? Do I really believe this? Given what I know about the world, and this definition of God, does this even make sense?
And the answer was a resounding no. It didn’t. For one, if this being were roaming around the universe breaking its natural laws, then why did it create those laws in the first place? Further, there just seemed to be no room for this being in existence. Every job that this being was supposed to do appeared to already be fulfilled by some fully explainable natural process. Every step science took forward seemed to leave less and less room for this evasive supernatural being.
And this didn’t only apply to science; it applied to my everyday life. In order to connect with this supernatural being, I had to actively disconnect from the natural world around me – which, ironically, was the only existence I could verify with my own eyes. This is what it meant for me, as a theistic Christian, to be holy – to not be “of the flesh,” to not be “worldly.” It meant disconnecting from the world – and ultimately, I now felt, disconnecting from reality.
And so, I concluded, I did not believe in this theistic supernatural being anymore.
But when I thought about it, there was another way that I had interacted with what I had called God that did not involve disconnecting with reality through rituals like prayer. In fact, in this second way of interacting with God, I fully embraced reality – I embraced every heartbeat, every glance into the eyes of another person, every breath, every thought, and every ray of sunlight – and when I saw these things, I felt like I was literally seeing God face to face. Not a creation of God, not a symbol of God, but the ineffable reality of God itself. This was what I felt was meant by the verse “God is love.” This God was not only compatible with the natural world; this God was nature itself. This God was the ultimate form of unity: It was literally everything. This God was not a being; this God was beyond being. This was a God I could believe in.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this conception of God is called “pantheism.” Formally, pantheism is the belief that God is the transcendent reality, of which the material universe and human beings are a part. I perceived this God, in the form of interactions between the natural world and human psychology, as the true source of my numinous experiences. In fact, the more I contrasted this God with the God of theism, the more I despised theism for preventing me from seeing this greater form of God.
Like I said, my own experience was similar; after I had this insight, I felt like I’d finally found the true nature of God once and for all. I thought I’d reached the end of my spiritual journey.
In time, though, even this conception of God started to slip away. After all, if what I was calling “God” was actually just love or beauty or nature, then why complicate what I was saying by using the word “God” at all? Why not just call it love or beauty or nature? Love didn’t have to also be called “God” – love was just love. Beauty didn’t have to be called “God” – beauty was just beauty. The universe was just the universe. Nature was just nature. And God… well, at this point it seemed like God was nothing but a label that I was having trouble letting go of. I’d finally gotten to the point where the word “God” had been reduced to little more than a figure of speech – but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me that it was a figure of speech that no longer made any sense, and was no longer necessary. Whatever desire I still had to keep clinging to God – even just to something I could call God – was, I now realized, nothing but a leftover idea that had been ingrained in me by my religion, combined with my innate biological inclinations toward pattern-seeking and wishful thinking. But I no longer belonged to that religion; and I’d become aware enough of my own biological biases that they no longer pushed me toward theistic explanations. So what reason was left for me to continue believing in God? I no longer felt that I had one. Every last piece of the armor protecting the God belief had been removed – and there had turned out to be nothing inside. I could no longer describe myself as having any supernatural beliefs at all.
Here’s Evid3nc3 again, describing how he finally arrived at the same conclusion:
Is God the world we see, or something beyond what we see? Did reality emanate from God, or was God reality itself? Was God the creative forces of the universe, or the basic laws upon which those forces were based? Did God live through human beings, or was God a reality outside of human beings? Was God simply everything, or was God something specific that we were seeking after? Was God the grounding that made our actions possible, or was God the energy with which we acted?
All of these conceptions of a non-theistic God were different, and they all meant different things. What I was slowly starting to realize […] was that maybe God was just what we called things that we don’t understand. Or maybe God was what we called powerful emotions we had. In describing God, perhaps what we were really describing were not things outside of us, but our own psychology – our connection to other people, our sense of wonder about the things in the world that we do understand, our sense of mystery about the things in the world that we don’t understand. All these things had been called God, yet they all represented something distinctly different about physical reality. And saying that it is all God – that everything is God – is profound in its own way; but saying that also diminishes the special quality of each individual perspective. Again, perhaps what we were labeling as God was not the things outside of us, but the feelings we have when we experience these things – our own psychology.
There was a creeping problem with all [the traditional religious] reasoning about God – a creeping problem that had started to slowly but steadily crystallize as I read the theological reasoning of people like John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong, and religious thinkers throughout history. And that problem was evidence. None of these conceptions of God were motivated by verifiable and binding evidence. And without evidence, we might as well be debating about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin, or the best strategy Frodo Baggins could use to get the Ring to Mordor. The theological thought process was contained entirely within our own minds and our own feelings, with no grounding in physical reality.
This realization of a lack of grounding in evidence was a problem not only for theism, but for every conception of God, including panentheism and pantheism. If “God” was just a name that we gave things that we do have evidence for, then using the term “God” to describe them is meaningless and unhelpful, because of the theological baggage the term carries. If we call the natural universe “God,” we risk implying that it has theistic properties, when that isn’t what we mean. This was one of Einstein’s greatest mistakes as a de facto atheist – one that still annoys atheists today, as theists exuberantly claim him as a believer. But if “God” is meant to refer to something that is beyond our understanding, like something powerful and intelligent that preceded the universe, or a grounding of our perceived reality that we cannot fully understand, or a universal consciousness that benevolently guides all things, then another problem occurs: By the very nature of these claims, we have no evidence for them.
Either way, as I thought about it over the next several months, I could not justify using the term “God” to describe any aspect of reality any longer. Again, perhaps God was just what we called things that made us feel a certain way. Perhaps ultimately, the best way to think of God was as a feeling we experience, a part of our own psychology. How was it that it was so hard for people to agree on what God was, yet so easy for them to agree that there was a God? Because God is a feeling. A feeling of the ultimate, and the numinous. A feeling that all people share and experience. Not a thing, but a feeling that we use to label our experiences, often the most meaningful experiences of our lives. And a lot of things throughout history had made people have this feeling – so a lot of things throughout history had been called God, or called evidence of God.
I think that a lot of people find this feeling – of something profound and transcendent and bigger than themselves – to be so beautiful that they make it part of their religious identity for that reason alone. It’s not so much that they strongly feel that their faith must be true in a hard operational sense – they honestly don’t tend to give that aspect of it very much thought – it’s more like they’re believing in it just for the aesthetics of believing in it. As one minster told Luke Muehlhauser, “In a way, I am a Christian because I want to be one, and the logic flows from there.” The actual truth or falsehood of the belief isn’t so much their central concern; they just believe in it because they find it beautiful and profound and uplifting, and that’s all the justification they need.
At its core, though, I don’t think this kind of “belief” can actually be considered genuine belief. It seems like more of an affinity for an idea – a personal identification with an idea – than a literal belief in that idea. It’s sort of like a parent boasting that their child is the best baseball player in Little League. They might realize on a logical level that what they’re saying may not be literally true – but that’s not why they’re saying it; it’s more that they just consider supporting their child to be inherently noble in itself. And the same kind of thing is often true of religious faith; people may not explicitly believe in a literal deity, but they believe that faith itself is a virtue. As Daniel Dennett puts it, they “believe in belief.”
This inclination is understandable enough, especially if you’ve been raised your whole life to associate faith with noble concepts like hope and virtue. But the question of what’s actually true does still matter here. If you found out tomorrow that God definitely didn’t exist – if you could somehow know it for a fact – would you still “believe” in him anyway? Would you still want to? Some people might say that they would. They might say something like, “Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for me, and that’s what matters.” But this way of thinking just doesn’t hold water. The idea of “Maybe it’s not true for everyone but it’s true for me” might make sense if you were just talking about your philosophy of life, like “Don’t dwell on the past” or “Always do more than expected” or whatever. Those kinds of ideas really are pretty person-specific in their applicability. But when it comes to religious matters, the propositions at hand are most often ones of objective fact. Questions like whether God really created the world, or whether he really commanded us to kill gay people, or whether he really brought Jesus back from the dead, are ones with objective historical answers; either these things happened or they didn’t. Likewise for the questions of whether God exists at all, whether he answers prayers, and so on; either these things are objectively true or they aren’t. There’s no room for someone to say “This might not be true for everyone but it’s true for me,” any more than they can say something like “My personal truth is that Harry Truman was the first president of the United States,” or “My personal truth is that giraffes didn’t exist until the year 1920,” or “My personal truth is that 2+2=5,” or what have you.
Everyone may be entitled to their own opinions and personal philosophies and so on – but as Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, they aren’t entitled to their own facts. And to act as though such questions of objective fact can be treated as mere matters of subjective preference isn’t just misguided; it can be downright dangerous. If your only basis for believing that you could read people’s minds, for instance, was that it made you feel special and powerful, then if you ever found yourself in a situation where the consequences of that belief actually came into play (like an argument or a mugging or something), then the fact that you couldn’t really read minds could cause serious harm to both yourself and others. And the same is true of religious beliefs; if you’re counting on God to answer your prayers and guide your decisions, then you’d better be right if you’re actually deciding anything of consequence (like what kind of education to give your children, or whether to support a particular political policy, or whether to give an elderly relative a life-saving stem cell-based medical treatment rather than letting them “go to Heaven,” etc.). Otherwise, your religious belief is like an unhealthy drinking habit – wonderful while you’re enjoying its intoxicating effects, and easy to rationalize as a harmless indulgence in the short term, but in the long term a potentially major detriment to both you and the people around you.
Edwin Way Teale put it this way: “It is as morally bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.” It might be uplifting and reassuring to believe that there’s a God and an afterlife and so on, but that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for believing it; there has to be some indication that it’s actually true.
And for what it’s worth, I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone here. I would personally love to find out that there was a God up there watching out for me. I desperately wish it were true that Heaven was real and that we could all live forever in perfect happiness. But if my only reason for believing things was that I enjoyed how it felt to believe them, then I might just as well start “believing” that I could fly, or that I was an immortal billionaire, or that everybody thought I was the greatest person in the world or something. Again, what ultimately matters here isn’t how rewarding it feels to believe in a particular idea; what matters is whether the idea is actually true. And in the case of God and the supernatural, there just isn’t any good reason to think that it is.