reconciling atheism and theism Jul 29, 2023

About three years ago i went from being what i called a 'non-evangelical atheist' (as it seemed to me like all the famous atheists were quite unpleasantly enthusiastic about it) to something else. I don't know what to call it. I stepped outside of the two logical options into the realm of paradox. My understanding is that, depending on how you look at it, god exists and god doesn't exist. I'm going to try to explain what that means, and why i think it makes sense. I won't do this rigorously. Instead i will lay out an array of points, and trust the reader to draw their own lines. Perhaps this is only a draft which will eventually lead to a more rigorous presentation, or perhaps this is the only form that such a position can take.

I used to think that all arguments were either misunderstandings or could be traced back to a disagreement over a definition. Now i would say 'perspective' instead of 'definition'. Definition implies reason, whereas perspective includes both reason and intuition.

There is an incredible magic in perspective. One day we look at things in a particular way, and the next, it seems like a whole new world is in front of us. But really the world has mostly stayed the same, while in us only the tiniest bits of brain have changed, with great effect. We have a strong sense that our perspective is right, but we know that our perspective changes. And we know that we are all looking at the same reality, yet still we see conflict and paradox.

Reality is not made of conflict or paradox; These only arise from our way of looking at things. Reality is, so far as we can tell, seamless and smooth. It always knows what to do in every situation, even though it is always encountering new situations.

If we are careful with our ideas, the question of existence is subsumed by the question of identity. It's no longer about 'does god exist?', but 'what is god?'. It becomes a language problem, a problem of communication and understanding, rather than one of proof and logic.

I see two main meanings of 'god'. One is 'reality', and the other is 'the human idea of the sum total of reality'.

God as reality is unchanging and untouchable; The rules are the rules. Reality, although always directly present, is also always difficult to access. We can only perceive reality indirectly and by simplifying it, by capturing reflected light, by filtering vibrations in the air into different frequencies, by sensing changes in the temperature or pressure on our skin. Everything we perceive has already happened, sometimes only by a fraction of a second (light), sometimes a few seconds (distant sound), and sometimes by years and more (distant astronomical events). Reality is not created by the mind, nor is its operation dependent on or composed of ideas. Rather, our ideas are our grasping at the motion of reality, our attempt to simplify its complexity, to isolate patterns within an ever-changing web of action.

In contrast, god as the idea of reality is always changing. We create and recreate this god; Each new human being has to form their own understanding. Whether we think of this idea as god or not is irrelevant to its nature. We carry a collection of concepts, simplifications of the world. The degree to which these concepts align with reality determines their truth, their godliness. Don't forget, this is reality on all scales, the very small and the human-size and the very large. The wholeness of reality includes everything at once. This idea of god is about taking every perspective into account, which is an endless task. It is about us as much as it is about reality, and we aren't always so firmly grounded. Nature may ultimately be simple, but the systems which arise in its operation are abundant and complex.

There is also 'the god that i think someone else believes in'. This is a dangerous idea, because it can get in the way of a deep understanding of both god and the other person. Reb zalman, who believes in god, is fond of saying "the god that you don't believe in, i don't believe in either". This is a way of breaking through 'the idea of god' to get at something more real. He also says "your god is a true god" with a similar motivation.

Often we think of god in very abstract terms: the creator of everything, the spirit which is in all things, absolute goodness. But through the lens of emergence, we can see god as the concrete, and all abstractions above that as the emanations of god. In other words, god is the smallest thing, which makes up everything. In physics terminology, god is local and non-real (is not an object in the ordinary sense). The 'large god' is 'god at scale', the summation of all the tiniest motions.

Does reality exist? It certainly doesn't exist in the same way that a table or a hummingbird does. Reality, if it be a true reality, is not contingent, existing within or because of something else, but exists simply because it can, within the great void of possibility. That void is another candidate for the label of 'god', the undifferentiated and transcendent source of all things.

God is everything and the idea of everything. These two are dancing, as the idea is always being tailored to more closely fit the body of reality. And in every new person, the work begins anew, and fresh discoveries are made. There is nothing to believe in, except that i am only a small piece of reality, a reality which continues on, always according to its law. In this way, science and religion can be seen as radically compatible, two mystical facets of the same drive to understand, a drive present in all life. Atheism and theism merge and transcend logic, reaching to touch the heart of the world. Can such a feat be accomplished? Or is there a gulf in nature, between knowledge and reality, such that we must be content to handle a shadow? Is the gulf a figment of our perspective?

reconciling atheism and theism

links to:
- a meditation toward the union of science and religion
- mirror on the mountain
- nameless
- reaching for the fruit
- reconstructing the spiritual hierarchy with scientific mysticism
- the clay jug and the molten iron

all writing, chronological
next: a coin in the ocean
previous: Naushka's secret room