Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 6 May 2011

God with no ego

An unusual oxymoron, I know, but, like anything delivered tongue-in-cheek, it contains an element of serious conjecture. Many years ago (quarter of a century), I read a book on anthropology, which left no great impression on me except that the author said that there were 2 types of culture world wide. One cultural type had a religion based on a ‘creator’ or creation myth, and the other had a religion based on ancestor worship.

I would possibly add a third, which is religion based on the projection of the human psyche. In a historical context, religion has arisen primarily from an attempt to project our imagination beyond the grave. Fascination in the afterlife started early for humans, if ritual burials are anything to go by. By extension, the God of humans, in all the forms that we have, is largely manifest in the afterlife. The only ‘Earthly’ experiences of God or Gods occur in mythology.

Karen Armstrong, in her book, The History of God demonstrates how God has evolved over time as a reflection of the human psyche. I know that Armstrong is criticised on both sides of the religious divide, but The History of God is still one of the best books on religion I have read. It’s one of her earliest publications when she was still disillusioned by her experience as a Carmelite nun. A common theme in Armstrong’s writing is the connection between religion and myth.

I’ve referred to Ludwig Feuerbach in previous posts for his famous quote: God is the outward projection of the human psyche (I think he said ‘man’s inner nature’), so I’ve taken a bit of licence; but I think that’s as good a definition of God as you’re going to get. Feuerbach also said that ‘God is in man’s image’ not the other way round. He apparently claimed he wasn’t an atheist, yet I expect most people today would call him an atheist.

For most people, who have God as part of their existential belief, it is manifest as an internal mental experience yet is ‘sensed’ as external. Neurologist, Andrew Newberg of University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated via brain imaging experiments that people’s experience of ‘religious feelings [God] do seem to be quite literally self-less’. This is why I claim that God is purely subjective, because everyone’s idea of God is different. I’ve long argued that a person’s idea of God says more about them than it says about God.

I would make an analogy with colour, because colour only occurs in some sentient creature’s mind, even though it is experienced as being external to the observer. There is, of course, an external cause for this experience, which is light reflected off objects. People can equally argue that there is an external cause for one’s experience of God, but I would argue that that experience is unique to that person. Colour can be tested, whereas God cannot.

Contrary to what people might think, I’m not judgemental about people’s belief in God – it’s not a litmus test for anything. But if God is a reflection of an individual’s ideal then judge the person and not their God.

When I was 16, I read Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) and it challenged my idea of God. At the time, I knew nothing about Camus or his philosophy, or even his history with the French resistance during WWII. I also read L’Etranger (The Outsider) and, in both books, Camus, through his protagonists, challenges the Catholic Church. In La Peste, there is a scene where the 2 lead characters take a swim at night (if my memory serves me correctly) and, during a conversation, one of them conjectures that it would possibly be better for God if we didn’t believe in God. Now, this may seem the ultimate cynicism but it actually touched a chord with me at that time and at that age. A God who didn’t want you to believe in God would be a God with no ego. That is my ideal.


david thurman said...

Everything is a projection of psyche if you take that all language, symbolization, math etc, is simply an expressive narrative only. We have a rather interesting agreement within science and religion that argue for conceptual neurological independence from different angles. A bird performs Science, it separates fact from fiction and eats the stick bug. A philosopher muses poetically about descriptiveness.:D A relgious person speaks of a detached engineer designer. So until we get to the level Primate speaking instead of An abstractive intelligent being that evolved from primate, I suppose we will sort of muddle along, but that's evolution step by step.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi David,

Don Cupitt expressed a view in his book, Above Us Only Sky, that there is effectively no 'meaning' and no 'truth' without language.

I don't entirely agree with him, but you can read my interpretation of his views, and where I differ, in a post I wrote that discusses his book here.

Regards, Paul.

Mathea the Dog Lover said...

Paul, sorry to be off topic, but here's a gem for you: U. of T. Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson's brilliant lecture on the nature of evil and its distinction from tragedy. The video of the lecture is available here: but I think it is more powerful in audio form. It’s available for free as a podcast on iTunes, just search TVO Big Ideas Jordan Peterson on the nature of evil. Great stuff.

The Atheist Missionary said...

Sorry, I left that last comment #3 using my daughter's profile by accident. Best, TAM.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks TAM,

I'll certainly check it out.

Just spent a week in hospital so I've been out of touch. Nothing drastic, just old age catching up with me (polymyalgia rhuematica). And a month ago I was still running.

Currently working on a post on cosmology based on John D. Barrow's book, The Book of Universes. It's brilliant. I hope to post it today.

Best regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

That was a superb talk TAM – refreshing and insightful. One of the best deconstructions of the Genesis myth I’ve heard.

I totally agree with his distinction between tragedy and evil – a point I’ve made myself. What we do is evil because we rationalise it and that’s the fundamental difference between us and other species.

I disagree with him, in that economic inequality does play a role, because it is often a catalyst for evil – creates resentment, whether real or perceived.

The point about identity is one I’ve raised as well. Identity is what people are willing to die for, which means they are willing to kill for. Evil on the scale of genocide is always rationalised with the argument that a specific ‘group’ of people are responsible for the perceived ills of a society. Relates very well to the Cain and Abel story in fact.

One interesting point concerning our ‘self-consciousness’, is the universal dream that everyone has (in the West) of appearing naked in public. I’ve always believed this dream is a metaphor for our insecurities. If you can have that dream without being self-conscious it probably says something about your sense of self-integrity. You can expose your soul, so to speak, without fear of judgement.

Interesting that he argues that it is women who reject, which I wrote a post on myself not so long ago.

Excellent stuff.

Thanks, Paul.