Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Go(o)d Crutch

I've often heard atheists say that belief in God is a crutch. If you need to believe that some Big Father in the Sky is going to make your life come out all right, that He's going to punish the Evil and reward the Good, or that He's set up some special realm where you'll understand all mysteries and get to see your dead loved ones again – well, that's because you're crippled. You're just not up to facing the world the way it is.

Personally, I have a lot of ambivalence about atheism, to the point that I dither about whether to use the pronoun we or they when I talk about atheists. But I think this crutch metaphor deserves a closer look than it usually gets, and in the end I'm not sure who it really serves. Theists sometimes turn it around: Humans, they observe, are all crippled in one way or another. And who is more pathetic than a cripple too proud to use a crutch.

Let's back up. To use the word God in any kind of a reasonable discussion, I need to make a distinction between God the hypothetical ruler of the Universe, and the concept of God in people's minds. We might (inadequately) label them as the Objective God and the Subjective God. The reason I sometimes consider myself an atheist is that I don't know how to talk about the Objective God in any sensible way. Almost everything I hear about the Objective God sounds like gibberish to me. (Theists might claim that this just makes me a mystic rather than an atheist, which is certainly arguable.)

But the Subjective God is another topic entirely. When you talk about the Objective God, "Does He/She/It exist?" can be a reasonable question. But when you talk about the Subjective God, who obviously does exist, the better question is "Should He/She/It exist?"

To which I say: Sometimes, for some people, yes. Sometimes for me, in fact, though less and less often as I get older. I might project that process forward, and imagine that if I ever achieve perfect maturity, I'll be a 100% atheist.

Or I might not.

In order to explain why, I need to make another objective/subjective distinction, though fortunately this time I can steal terminology from Jung rather than make it up myself. Let's think of people as the objective beings who wander around in the world, and of characters as the corresponding ideas in our heads. Characters are woefully inadequate ways to think about people, but they're all we've got. Usually the inadequacy doesn't get us into too much trouble, which is probably why our brains evolved to think this way.

The inadequacy is most notable and problematic when we introspect. Each of us is an objective being-in-the-world that Jung called a Self. And each of us also conceives of himself/herself as a character that Jung calls an Ego. The two never match. They can't; the human mind just isn't set up to represent itself. Which makes sense, if you think about it. When homo habilis roamed the plains of Africa, acute introspection probably wasn't a deciding survival factor.

As we mature, we can adjust the Ego to describe the Self ever better, but another piece of maturity is to realize that the description will never be perfect. The Self always contains undescribed depths and unrealized potentials, which is why it's so often worthwhile to try things even if you know you can't do them. (I used to go through decks of playing cards and guess red or black. I expected to average a 50/50 score: 26 right out of 52. Instead I averaged somewhere between 28 and 29. That turns out to be the score a card-counter would expect. I hadn't consciously thought of that strategy, but I managed to carry it out all the same.)

A lot of religion and psychology – and magick for that matter – amounts to a series of tricks that allow us to unlock undescribed powers of the Self without breaking our Egos. (As limiting as an Ego is, you'd be lost without one. You might want to reshape yours a little, or step outside of it once in a while, but you definitely don't want to break it.) Often such tricks are innocuous, and we use them without thinking about it. I used to know a woman who strongly believed that she had no head for finance, but that I did. So she'd call me when she had to make a financial decision and we'd talk it through. One day she made a major decision without discussing it, and later described the process like this: "I tried to call you, but you weren't home. And then I realized that I knew what you would say. So I just did that."

Now, where did that financial thinking happen? In her Self, obviously, unless you postulate some telepathic connection I was unaware of. She couldn't do the thinking inside her Ego, though, because her Ego had no head for finance. But the Self includes not just the Ego, but all the characters in a person's head. So she did the thinking inside the character that represented me.

Jung calls that projection. It's not good or bad, it's just one of the ways the mind works. One time when my godson was four, we both got stung by bees, probably because I didn't react to the situation fast enough. (My father, by contrast, once heroically charged into a swarm of hornets and plucked me out unharmed.) Afterwards, I thought my godson was angry with me. It took a bit of time to realize that I was angry with me, and he was staying away from me because I was so obviously angry at someone. I had represented the anger in my mind by projecting it onto him.

Some projections are nastier. You may, for example, maintain a racist character in your head, maybe a grandfather or an uncle. If you're white and you see a black person, you might think, "Grandpa would call that person a nigger, and tell me to watch out for him." And so the racist thought gets to enter your head without dirtying your Ego.

is another word that often shows up in atheist discussions of God. God is a screen onto which the faithful project their hopes and desires. This is generally presented as a bad thing. But is it really? Might not some projections be useful crutches?

Consider guilt and forgiveness. Guilt evolved for good reasons: It reminds us that we have wronged someone and need to make restitution or change our future behavior. A person incapable of feeling such guilt would be a sociopath, and a tribe of sociopaths wouldn't survive. But we all know people whose guilt has gotten out of hand. They feel guilty about accidents that they can't avoid by changing their behavior, and maybe there's nothing (or nothing more) they can do to make things right. Their best option at this point is let themselves off the hook and get on with life.

The Self can do that. It is totally within the power of the Self to interrupt the guilt process and send the all-clear signal of forgiveness. If you consciously had access to all the powers of the Self -- if the management of them were part of your Ego -- you could just decide to stop feeling guilty about something. But how many people have an Ego wise enough to handle such a power? If turning off guilt were as simple as scratching an itch, who could resist? The world would be overrun with sociopaths.

Instead, to the extent that people are aware of the forgiveness power at all, they usually project it. That's what society teaches us to do, and who can argue with the wisdom of it? Some of the power gets projected onto the characters we believe we have wronged -- if they say it's OK to forgive ourselves, we will. But some of the people we've wronged are dead, and others are too petty or resentful to use the forgiveness power responsibly. Sometimes we've wronged entire groups with no obvious spokesman. So it makes sense to give the forgiveness power to some other character as well. And while we're at it, it would make sense to project our wisdom and our sense of justice onto that character too, so that it would use the forgiveness power for the greater good.

Let's call that character God. And now that we have a subjective God, let's assign Him/Her/It a whole lot of other Self-powers that our Egos are unable or unworthy to command. Let's project the self-love that we're afraid we don't deserve, the compassion that would break our hearts, the judgment we can't face, the social outrage that would consume us, and the foresight that we're afraid to use.

That God as I've described Him (I've read a lot about female versions of the character, but the male version is the one I was taught to imagine) is a crutch. A totally enlightened, totally mature person should be able to claim all that power and wisdom and compassion as his or her own, without projecting it onto a character who may or may not correspond to anything in the world.

Know any such people? Me neither.

The atheists I've met are, as a group, no closer to total maturity and enlightenment than the theists. Some of them find other characters on which to project the power of the Self, some take it into their Egos and abuse it, and others just learn to live without it -- like cripples who are too proud to use a crutch.

Theists, as a group, have their own problems. Some God-characters are even less worthy to wield power than the Egos they stand in for. They forgive -- or encourage or even demand -- slavery or genocide or some other hideous evil. Or they are puppets for corrupt institutions or individuals, who want to hijack your Self-power and abuse it. Just turning those powers off would, in many cases, be a step forward.

But in other cases it wouldn't. Even Nietzsche recognized that. When Zarathustra meets the saint in the forest, he refuses to pass on his revelation that God is dead. "What could I have to give you?" he asks. "Best I should leave before I take something from you."

And so, as much as I wish for all people to come into their power and wield it responsibly, and while I continue to hope for my own enlightened atheistic future, when I meet people whose God-character is doing a reasonable job I try not to disturb them.

So worship on, good theists. I'm just passing through, and I'll try to leave before I'm tempted to steal or break anything valuable. And maybe, since I'm here anyway, you wouldn't mind if I picked up a hymnal and sang a verse or two.


Robin Edgar said...

"We might (inadequately) label them as the Objective God and the Subjective God."

Very well said Doug. If God exists as an actual objective reality, and I can claim to know from direct personal experience that there is indeed an "Objective God" as you put it, there are objective facts about the nature and attributes of God. I have often said that one can know a great deal about what you term the "Objective God" simply by freely and responsibly studying nature and other aspects of objective reality, such as human history for instance. . . I am on record as saying that any and all valid scientific discoveries are small 'r' "revelations" of God. The Creation is the most readily accessible and verifiable "revelation" of the Creator.

The Subjective God that you refer to is created out of diverse human beliefs about God, some of which are totally contradictory, that have evolved over several millennia. I would be the first to say that many religious beliefs are wishful thinking arising out of human desires. Try as they might militant atheists cannot knock down the "Objective God" by pointing out all the flaws and contradictions of the "Subjective God" who in many ways is a "straw man."

Here is a little object lesson from the "Objecive God" for all those who have eyes to see. . .

kimc said...

My brother used to say that a crutch is a good thing when you have a broken leg, but if you still use it when your leg heals, it becomes a bad thing. But he was referring to relationships rather than religion....
Very interesting essay. I would probably be an atheist if I hadn't had personal Experiences of "God".

Ottawa Greenspace said...

I have been doing a great deal of thinking myself recently about this. I have come down to belief in that the only "Objective God" is the universe itself. That is, what we humans use the concept of god for, trying to order our thoughts on morality, existence etc. can be just as easily found saying God (=the universe) has laws, which are found by observation and science. This god is not an intelligence or a creator etc. It just IS.
Like an atheist I need no god outside of the very reality that we live in. But is is useful sometimes to discuss things in terms of "God" to help others understand concepts in terms familiar to them. I can talk about God the creator, because everything is part of the universe, there is nothing else.

It also is a god that has no intelligence other than quantum randomness, is completely indifferent to us as humans, allows no miracles, and can not be influenced by any of our entreaties. It also does not speak though the musings of nomadic shepherds from 2500 years ago.

At the same time, we can have a subjective god (personal relationship with the universe), buy realizing that we are responsible for our own place. There are no miracles and a miracle would be a betrayal of the consistency that the universe must have to be meaningful.

Perhaps the religion that worships the universe as god could be called "universalism" :-)

Doug Muder said...

The "universalism" Ottawa Greenspace talks about sounds close to the religion of Spinoza. People of his day described Spinoza as an atheist, but he uses the word "God" all through his writings. Spinoza makes no distinction between the will of God and the natural laws of the Universe.

And I think "God" has important metaphoric uses even for atheists. Being able to talk about a "God's-eye view" for example. Or to run the thought experiment of what you'd do with a situation if you were God. Lots of people talk about Mother Nature without believing in a literal goddess in the woods.