I may doubt the existence of God, but there’s little doubt in my mind about the perils of idolatry.
In my understanding, it falls under the definition of idolatry to worship a God we have imagined to be like us, and not consider that an infinite divinity is likely to be beyond our self-centeredness, beyond our insecurity, our shame, our doubt, our vengefulness, our sadism, our single-mindedness, our intolerance, our venality. If there is a God, natural or supernatural, it would seem to be in the definition of God to be larger than our frail imaginations, and larger than our anthropomorphic declarations about “His” mind and motives.
I believe quite passionately (fervently, to use a word to use a word that is usually reserved for the traditionally religious) that those who believe in a supernatural being are most spiritual when they avoid dividing the sacred and the profane along the same line that separates believers in their own version of God from believers in God by another name, or believers in a supernatural God from the believers in none. When they make these divisions, I think what is displayed is reckless hubris and ultimately, idolatry. Though I may doubt the existence of God, of this I am convinced: the idolatry of thinking God has taken our side is a most grievous sin against the very nature of what is sacred. The experience of the sacred is far too important to humanity to be sequestered by only those--and for only those--who believe in one particular, or in fact any, supernatural being.
A fair number of us, supernaturalists and non-supernaturalists alike, would sanctify the moral tenet that to obliterate others in the name of the divine, to persecute them, certainly, or enslave them, but even to demean them or treat them in any way other than according to the golden rule, belongs to the category of evil, not to the category of good. I consider these my spiritual brethren. I sadly fear that we are not a majority on the planet, and never have been, but that in itself does not defeat us, annihilate us, convert us, or cause us to despair.
The faithful can call me an atheist, or not. It is not important to me. I hope I can be credited with this: that I strive to possess the virtue of humility and avoid the sin of idolatry. Can they say the same, themselves? Are those two things a virtue and a sin, respectively, in their vocabulary? How disciplined, logical, mature, consistent, generous, fair and loving is their own act of faith? Or do they not take ownership of their faith as their own act? Do their holy scriptures relieve them of any such responsibility? Jean-Paul Sartre receives a lot of contempt from people who’ve never read a word he wrote, but one of his assertions that I came to appreciate in a profound way in my college years is this: We cannot blame our beliefs or our actions on those who have advised us, because ultimately the fact of our human existence once we reach maturity is that we choose our advisers. That includes choosing holy scripture.
Freedom of religion served as a major organizer of the Constitution of the United States. It was a dearly-held principle at the time of its drafting-—made dear by much recent and cumulative religious persecution. I am happy to stand with its defenders, because I know it is a right on which much human happiness depends, and without which much human suffering proliferates. It gets far more lip service than it gets true respect and appreciation. It is attacked incessantly by many who claim to hold it in high esteem. At its core is a value that I consider to be deeply spiritual-—that my fellow man and I have mutual and equal rights to declare what is sacred and divine in our experience, and that recognition of this equality is itself a declaration of something held sacred, the absence of which is best regarded as a manifestation of evil.
There is in our culture an oft-stated aphorism that everything happens for a reason. This is a thesis usually associated with numerous corollaries, any of which may be doubted: if we believe not everything happens for a reason, then we think we have been abandoned by God, or worse, we have abandoned “Him;” either way, nothing could possibly be sacred any longer, nothing moral or immoral, nothing endowed with meaning. But perhaps these assertions are false. The conception of a God with a plan that stretches infinitely in every direction stretches, itself, in every direction but one, which is toward contemplation that perhaps our human lot is to grapple with our existence and our need for morality and our need for categories of sacred and profane without the simplicity of a divinely-conceived reason for it all. Contemplation that our lot may be to cope with events as having a natural or human cause and not bring the supernatural in to share blame or authorship.
One of the spiritual highlights of my last several decades has been to sit in a planetarium and look at the Hubble Deep Field. It is an image of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major, constructed from a series of photographs taken over ten consecutive days in December, 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers an area just 2.5 arcminutes across, therefore just two millionths of the sky. The field is so small that only a few foreground stars in the Milky Way lie within it, yet there are 3,000 objects in the image, all the rest of which are other galaxies. Galaxies; not solar systems, not planets. Three years later, the image called the Hubble Deep Field South was compiled, of a similar tiny slice of the south celestial hemisphere. The similarities between this bit of sky and the one in the Hubble Deep Field advanced our understanding that the universe is uniform all around us, and that the region of the universe the Earth occupies is typical. That means that in ten days, measurable light from 1.5 billion galaxies could be photographed if we undertook to photograph the entire sky. How many would we see-—because enough of their light finally reached us in measurable amounts—-in a month? In a year?
My rational mind—-the mind that has travelled the worlds of chemistry and biology and medicine--understands that the chances that the elements that combined to give rise to carbon-based life here on Earth have done so only here, and nowhere else in the universe, are infinitesimally small. And my spiritual self-—yes, I insist that I have one, just as much as any other human-—believes that if any of us on Earth undertakes to conceive of God as universal, then our need for humility, in the face of the enormity of the universe, cannot be overstated. Could we ever be too circumspect, too tolerant, too patient, too humble in our assertions? Seems unlikely to me.
If life on Earth is not unique, but in fact typical of life elsewhere in the universe, what could we expect to deduce from it? It seems to me that the challenge for us is how to live with our fellow beings in a way that gives us meaning and hope and moral direction, while at the same time recognizing that the universe—-by the hand of a supernatural God or not-—gave rise to sentient others just as it gave rise to us. Annihilation of the other could be our godly imperative, just as submission to annihilation could be the path to eternal, non-corporeal life. But what about the other possibilities? Are they less likely? What if divinity lies along the path of co-existence, however difficult that turns out to be? What if the concept of the devil, of the evil other, was just an anthropomorphic projection on the universe, a supernatural goblin we conceived, to help us make sense of the terrors of existence? What if our true godly orientation to the other is always to figure out best how to hold onto ourselves, not lose ourselves as we meet him or her, and yet not annihilate what is them, on the assumption that they are our equal? When I think about things that I hold to be undeniably immoral-—bullying, battering, murder, child sexual abuse, genocide-—what is apparent to me is the psychic annihilation intended in all of them. These are the acts that would rouse me to defensive action. I would live with ambivalence about the harm, destruction or death entailed in my cause, but it’s where I would confidently plant my spiritual colors and defend my ground.
I spent years feeling deeply conflicted about the casual statements by others that they would ‘pray for me,’ or requests they made that I ‘pray for them’ or those they loved. For years, I couldn’t say ‘yes, I would,’ because I couldn’t pray in the way I did as a child, to the God I had been taught existed. Only in my forties have I concluded that I am entitled to my own understanding of divinity, and that my will, lifted and directed in hopeful expectation of redemption, whatever that may be, is just as sacred and worthy of solicitation as anyone else’s. I will not pray that your team wins the Superbowl, or that your daughter’s team wins her swim meet—-it insults my concept of everything properly spiritual. But I will pray for anyone’s comfort, and peace, and solace-—because I do not believe that the meaning of the sacred is in the path of suffering, but instead that it endures despite suffering. I understand that frequently the sacred might lie down a path that requires a person to turn away from selfishness, destruction, and falsehood, and that the mantle of responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions can be a painful one to pick up and bear. But I cannot sanctify as “prayer” my wishes that anyone encounter ill for the sake of ill, or suffering for the sake of vengeance. I know better. I have changed my mind over time about how to respond, though, when people ask me to pray for them. Now I say that I will, and I mean it. I am a spiritual person who does not believe in a supernatural God. I pray, maybe not every day, and certainly not in my most venal, selfish moments, but I do pray; I pause to lift my will in the direction of what I understand to be sacred and divine, for my family, for my friends, sometimes even for my enemies, and always for the safe forward transit of our tiny Earth in our incomprehensibly enormous universe. I just do not require the certainty of a respondent in order to know I am praying.