Am I an Atheist or a Theist?
There seems to be some disagreement as to whether I'm a theist or an atheist. At least by implication I have been called both. I use neither term to describe myself, preferring to call myself simply a free-thinker.
Where the issue has come up is in reaction to a book I've written called How to Be Free by Joe Blow. Joe Blow is my pseudonym. I showed this book to an atheist friend of mine and he expressed disgust that I had fallen to "theism". More recently the book has angered a couple of Christians who commented (on U.S. I-Tunes - where the book currently has received 61 five star ratings) :
"Disgusting--somebody told me it was the most amazing book-ebooked it--now I'm trashing it--then taking a shower...screwball Go find the Real God."
O.K., I suppose that one doesn't say that I'm an atheist, necessarily, but certainly that I'm not a believer in the same God as the reviewer.
"If you are a Christian, do not waste your time! I'm a Christian woman and this book says that God is not real! He is very much real! I am writing this review so that other Christians will be warned of this upfront so they will not have to waste their time by downloading and find out for themselves! As soon as I submit this review I am deleting this book!"
The problem when it comes to whether one believes in God it seems to me is that we first have to define what we mean by God. Clearly I don't believe in the same God as these two individuals. But is what I do believe in God or something else? In some ways it might be easier to avoid the term because of all of its baggage, but when I read many statements about God especially from a writer like William Blake or in sayings attributed to Jesus, they often resonate with what I do believe in on a deeper level than superficial literal interpretation.
Here are some passages from my book which indicate why there is some confusion :
What is God?
We often have a tendency to personify the impersonal. We talk of Mother Nature or Father Time. Of course there is no actual Mother Nature, but the earth’s ecosystem on which we may put this human face, does exist.
This is the case with the concept of God. There is no God, anymore than there is a Mother Nature, but the creative principle of the universal system is an observable reality. There are laws to the way the universe operates that allow for orderly phenomena and for the evolution of more basic forms into more complex and capable forms such as ourselves. And onto this reality, for our own comfort, we put a human face.
This may sound very cold. But we should remember that all the wonders of our world and the rest of the universe and ourselves are a product of the operation of these laws.
And when we realise that these laws operate within human society in the form of love then we can see that the identification of this mythical figure with a healing or comforting social phenomena is not inappropriate.
But what of the concept of an angry God who asks us to subjugate ourselves to him. This is where the concept of the love of perfection as the root of all evil can best be understood.
By the time the Judaeo-Christian concept of God (differing greatly from those deities of earlier times which often represented only certain aspects of nature or the human psyche) came into being, our society was profoundly neurotic. Civilisation (i.e. repression) had been going on for a long time. A neurotic society is generally controlled by its most neurotic members as long as they are still capable of functioning, because their insecurity makes the control of those less neurotic than themselves an imperative. When we are neurotic, we live in fear of the disowned part of our own nature, and, if unchecked, this fear can manifest itself as the desire to control those who express it or represent it in the external world. For reasons which will be explained later, the human neurosis first appeared in males. It quickly spread to women, but, in general, men tended to be more neurotic. And thus, as we and our society became more neurotic, men felt the need to take control and impose their will to an ever greater degree. Our societies, which in the distant past had been matriarchal because of the primacy of the reproductive role, became patriarchal. This is why God was conceived as not only a man, but an angry, neurotic, intolerant man. Because of the phenomenon known as projection, we create our Gods in our own image, just as we see in the world around us a projection of ourselves.
Paranoia is an important symptom of neurosis. We have a tendency to project the disowned part of ourselves, which we fear, onto others. For example, during the Cold War, capitalists saw in communism a projection of their own conscience which told them that it was wrong to be greedy, and communists saw in capitalists a projection of their own unacknowledged awareness of the futility of trying to repress their greed through discipline.
In a practical sense, fear of God was a way of maintaining the neurotic order of society. One might feel that a sick, miserable, evil society was better than no society at all, a collapse into unstructured barbarism. After all some kind of structure was needed if we were to co-operate enough to develop science and learn to understand ourselves and our world better.
But the major problem was that the root of the sickness was lack of self-acceptance, and by holding God up as an ideal of perfection and preaching that humans needed to abase themselves before “him”, the churches were making the sickness much much worse.
The view of God expressed depends on the individual. Since Jesus was clearly relatively free of neurosis, his concept of a loving, forgiving and tolerant God was more in keeping with an accurate understanding of the functioning of a healthy system.
What is Consciousness?
We have a body. We have a mind. We have an ego structure or personality. These give structure to our experience. They are media through which we experience.
We experience our lives. We think our thoughts. We have our feelings. But what or who is the “we” that experiences these things? We might think of these aspects of ourselves as a musical instrument. But what is the nature of the music itself?
Thinking is the construction and manipulation of patterns of information. But, we can stop thinking (i.e. stop processing or manipulating information) and still be conscious. This is what the discipline of meditation is all about.
Nor are the five senses necessary to consciousness. Even if we were to remove our ability to see, hear, taste, feel or smell, we would still be aware of the fact that we existed. We might know we existed because of our thought processes, but, once again, we could cease to think and still be aware of raw, unstructured, unmediated consciousness.
So what is this consciousness?
Thought takes place through the communication of information through the synapses in our brain. And physical awareness is possible because of the transmission of information through the nervous system generally. These are the conduits for our consciousness - they give it its shape - but what is it that is travelling through these conduits?
The answer is energy - the raw stuff of the universe.
Now we have to take a massive, seemingly insane leap and ask “What if energy itself is conscious? What if our consciousness, our awareness, the raw stuff of our experience, is nothing more than energy’s awareness of its own existence?”
This may seem like madness, but if we take some time to consider it, we will find that :
a. We can’t disprove it. We can’t prove that unstructured energy or inanimate objects have no awareness. We can observe that these things do not act like living organisms. But that proves nothing. Even with living beings, behaviour can give us clues about the experience or awareness of the being, but we don’t know what consciousness looks like, even if it looks like anything at all. So we have no reliable way of detecting it.
b. If we accept the concept that consciousness is energy’s self-awareness as a provisional hypothesis we can see that some otherwise inexplicable phenomena actually begin to make some kind of sense.
First it is important to understand what is not being suggested here, which is that energy or inanimate objects have thoughts or feelings. Thoughts and feelings are structured forms of consciousness which are most likely restricted to living things, as they are dependent on some kind of nervous system. But what flows through these structures is energy.
We have emotions. The word contains the word “motion” because emotions are characterised by flow. When we feel an emotion it is the sensation of energy moving through the structure of our ego in some way. In anger, the energy explodes through cracks in the armour of the ego structure or threatens to do so. We feel it simmering. In sorrow we feel emotion flowing through us perhaps expressed through sobs and tears. We feel pain when the free flow of energy in our body is hampered by damage of some kind.
The phenomenon of orgasm is a good way of looking at the nature of our consciousness. While, for the male, the ejaculation of seminal fluid is not always accompanied by the ecstatic experience we think of as characterising the orgasm, nevertheless, we know what we mean by the orgasmic experience. How does this happen? What makes this bodily experience so appealing to us. It is not simply the expelling of a bodily substance. That happens when we sneeze or take a shit. We might be relieved but we do not have a heavenly experience.
Wilhelm Reich, who developed the concepts of body armour and character armour, found that these forms of armouring may be temporarily broken down by the bodily experience of orgasm. This allows energy to flow far more freely in the body for a brief period of time.
So we see that the emotional or bodily experience which allows for our most intense experiences of bliss is one in which energy flows freely through our body, and that pain accompanies the hindering of that flow, by disease or injury or armouring.
Remember when you were a young child and you felt blissfully happy running through an open field? Why? You were just running. It was just a field. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that you felt free. You weren’t hemmed in or frustrated. You were energy expressing the nature of energy.
But this doesn’t mean that we want freedom from structure altogether. We want to feel energy flow freely through our bodies, but we don’t want to spontaneously combust. Creativity occurs when the free flow of information or energy finds a form which makes possible something which didn’t previously exist. So the healthy growth of individuals and societies is what feels best to them. The system of organisation of the individual or society is not oppressive in itself, but only becomes so if it is faulty in some way.
When we feel motivated or creative we say that we are filled with enthusiasm. What do we mean by “enthusiasm”? The literal meaning of the term is “the god within”. Since our concept of God is a personification that we place upon the creative principle of the universe - energy and its intrinsic potential for orderly creative organisation - then we can see that the enthusiasm or spirit or soul which lives within us and is the very substance of our experience - is “God” operating through us. And this “God” is essentially self-aware energy. We are “God”.
I don't believe in the supernatural. I don't believe in Heaven or Hell. I don't believe that there is a deity with a human personality to hear our prayers or to reek vengeance on sinners. But I do believe that there is a unifying creative tendency, which may have its own consciousness, which is expressed in the scientific laws we can see in operation in the universe, and that this creative tendency expresses itself in the human sphere in the form of love. None of this involves anything coming in from outside the physical world of energy and matter and beyond the evidence that evolution leads from something as simple as a single-celled organism up to something as complex and capable as us, the evidence for me is that, deep down inside myself I can feel that I am that creative principle.
So what am I? An atheist because i don't believe in the supernatural? A theist because I believe in a universal creative force? Or maybe a gnostic? But then, deeply felt and held as they are, can my beliefs really be considered more than beliefs. To call them knowledge seems presumptuous.
"Dogma is a defence against the brain’s capacity for free thought based on the fear that such thought might lead to a scary place."
Joe Blow - How to Be Free