Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Catching my drift.

The banner at the top of this site declares, "This is a theology and philosophy blog written by an non-theist". I’m not sure that non-theist is the best descriptor for me anymore. I think I’m drifting…

With blog posts like “God : what are we talking about”, and  "Beyond Logical Theology"  I have been investigating the middle ground between theist and non-theist. 

Sometimes that means showing how we all “worship” something and sometimes its about showing that we all have to operate without that something in hand. The classic one is truth. Whenever we argue for truth we are worshipping it in a way, but we don’t possess it. Hence we all function as both theists and atheists, living with and without “god”, all the time. To agree with that you will probably have to smudge and stretch your old concepts of god. I know I did.

That’s how I encountered a type of goddish concept I believe in. It’s taking me a long time to articulate though. In fact I would say this is a process of discovery that really kicked off with "Worshipping a Small God" well over a year ago. I was told my concept of god was too small. I found that a profoundly challenging concept. Hence I wrote a post that asks “What does it mean to separate God from their hugeness? What does it mean to worship a powerless source of good or a small god?”

I had previously put God into one of two categories. First there is the God who commands the unraveling of all history for their own glory and threatens us in a first person voice through their holy books. They still strike me as a spooky side-show attraction, at best. At worst they are a demonic evil that we ought to oppose no matter what.

The other category for God is an impersonal one. They are something non-material, non-rational and just as irrelevant. Plato called them the unmoved mover. Physicists and philosophers have used this God throughout history as a tool to make their sums work. They’re like “dark matter” on legs. I’ve never denied the existence of this kind of God. I just tend to think that we should call them something else like the Tao or Quantum energy. The word God evokes too personal a figure for many people including me, to use here.

What I’m beginning to contemplate is something which borrows from the impersonal god concept their field like characteristics. Fields are like a force in natural science however rather than being created at a particular point, spending their energy and then extinguishing, fields continue. They are continuing qualities of space and time. Gravity is a field rather than a force. It has no beginning or end.

What I am taking from the personal god concept is that this field has an interest in life. This field values certain ways of engaging with life over other ways. As I put this into words I feel uncomfortable with it. I’m ready to take it back. Am I really saying that I believe in a cosmic field that cares? You can see why the non-theist label is slipping. (You can also see some of these thoughts developing in " A moral world".

So how have I got to this point? A significant first step is in recognizing that morality underpins everything. You can’t have science without a concept of good and bad science. You can’t be a scientist without having outrage at flagrant superstition. Science is at its heart a moral enterprise before it is even begun.

This is true of all thought. Morality has to precede thought, or surround it, or sustain it (choose your metaphor) because otherwise you can’t have good thought and bad thought. Before you can think, you have to care about thinking.

Now you could say that this caring is just some evolved characteristic of our brains. You could certainly make the case for its usefulness to encourage learning. When we care we pay attention. However, even if you recognize it as merely evolutionarily expedient to give a damn about the world, you can’t shake it off. If you try to you’ll crash all your other functions of thought as a consequence.

Even if it didn’t do that it, rejecting morality would “be” wrong. That’s something I explored in "It's OK to Kill" The wrongness of throwing away your morality precedes anything else and persists even after you have thrown away your morality. I believe that’s because the wrongness is not a product of our individual morality but an observation of the moral field from which our morality is drawn.

Woah…hold on. Morality as a pre-existing field in which all other thought (and intentional activity) is sustained; that’s pantheism not non-theism. The key distinction is that in pantheism everything is connected by something akin to a single perspective. The theos is that connective aspect. Perhaps perspective is too strong a word. Perhaps moral orientation is a better term. As I said in The Problem of Evil if you believe in an underlying moral nature to the world you are at least pseudo-theistic.

Historically one of my key reasons for being a non-theist is that disconnection makes the most sense of the world. I still feel like there’s something to emphasise there. Viruses and floods and monkeys have separate causes and purposes. They intersect to create the web of life but they aren’t in any way part of a gaian hive mind. They aren’t intentionally working in concert but are just made to work in some kind of concert by sharing an environment. That is part of the splendor of the world to me.

However now I’m talking about something that is a single will – the will for good – that permeates at least intelligent life. By intelligent I mean whenever life is making conscious choices. Choices require some level of thought and thought exists in a moral field.

A reasonable objection to all of this is that it isn’t real. I am only describing feelings and to be honest those feelings have contradictory feelings as well. My response to this objection is that asking if God is real is a different question for different concepts of God. If God is a bloke with a staff on a chair then they ought to have the sort of reality you can poke a stick at. If god is a moral field in which everything makes sense then the stick test doesn’t work. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you’re hung up on whether god is real you’re missing my point entirely. Is love real?

None of this means that I have any more time for the idea that we are born under Adam and Eves original sin for example. I also still don’t believe in reincarnation or any  enduring self after death I’m certainly not saying a) there is a moral field so b) when Paul the apostle tells women their voice in church is a disgrace they ought to believe him. That’s a lot of leaps, in the wrong direction too.

What I am able to do is enter into religious stories in a different way. I’m understanding the resurrection for example in a way that I wouldn't have before. People sometimes talk about the resurrection as an event that can’t be taken non-literally without losing all meaning. I wonder how the transformed body of Jesus can be considered literally at all. What does literally walked through walls mean? Think about it; it’s not walking as we know it that’s for sure.

Instead of worrying about the atomic weight of a risen Jesus, I am considering how whenever we act with moral intent we are acting in a way that is out of the normal flow of time and space. There is something eternal about compassion and embracing a life of compassion attaches us to that eternity. (Just think about when you do something good for a stranger.) Hence the promise of an eternal life for those who embrace love of others is true – it was never going to be sitting on a cloud but it’s still true.

This is a journey I’m on. Writing this blog puts that journey out into a public space. I don’t mind how that puts me at risk of public contradiction. I see it as growth.

You can expect that I will grow from this point too. I may recant everything I’ve written here and in the posts I've linked to. That would be surprising. For the moment I wonder if I need to change this blogs description at the top. Pretty please comment with your suggestions for a new tag line.

UPDATE: Currently cycling through some options. For reference the original description of the blog was;

This is a theology and philosophy blog written by an non-theist who has a deep respect for sincere theism.
Expect arguments that intelligent and integritous people exist on both sides of this supposed divide between atheism and religion.
I also aim to do theology and philosophy which is both humble and yet trying to be wonderful in the existential tradition.

(Original artwork from )


  1. Maybe replace "non-theist" with "post-categorical believer"? Sorry, that is too obtuse. You're not a deist, nor as you have pointed out a pantheist. Are you an either/orist? I want to get 'searcher' into your title, but a 'spiritual searcher' sounds just awful and new age. Hmmm... you're a tricky one! Are you a theosophist?

  2. At first I liked "post-categorical believer" then I really liked it, then I grew less sure. My head started getting stuck in the logical loop; Is post-categorical believer a category of belief?

    Is it too pompous to say "critical worshipper and wannabe servant of a mightless god"? Probably.

  3. Yours is way more poetical. Which has pluses and minuses.

  4. I feel a lot of affinity with agnosticism however there are ways in which I differ.
    Firstly when used as a strong identity agnosticism seems to be saying that God's existence is unknowable. That's a statement I'm not sure I can completely get behind.

    For one thing I increasingly don't think God makes sense as a concrete noun which it needs to for that agnostic claim to make sense itself. Is love unknowable? Is the good unknowable? Maybe perfectly it is but I wouldn't say it is entirely opaque to us.

    I do however have a lot of respect and time for agnosticism. I will probably always hold to a bit of it. In fact I might write a blog on the position that would generally be positive.