This is the first in a series of articles, following on from an introduction, based on a conversation between myself and Isak Dinesen on Medium, inspired by a book by André Comte-Sponville called The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality¹.
In my introduction I had noted her use of the word ‘transcendent’ in relation to Jung’s concept of synchronicity, and wondered how this related to her stated atheism. She has replied: “My understanding of transcendence is that which is beyond ourselves but it does not necessarily imply reference to a deity. Powerful even life changing experiences of awe, wonder and gratitude can exist without requiring an object to worship or thank. For instance nature is almost universally revered yet not necessarily with attribution to the divine creator”.
In my reply to her, I said that I suspected our belief-systems would turn out to be very similar, and this seems indeed to be the case. We both believe in transcendence, neither of us worship or thank a deity. (I do, however, in my own small way, believe that I serve the Holy Spirit.) I do not pray, and I assume she doesn’t either. I don’t go to church (except when invited to weddings or funerals) because I don’t see what it could do for me. Many people would probably describe me as “spiritual but not religious”, therefore; I assume, from what she says, that Ms. Dinesen would also describe herself thus. But I still call myself religious. That is because I believe that originally religion and spirituality were the same thing, and that it is only what some humans have done to the original spirituality that has caused the current rift. We should therefore be trying to bring the two back together.
We turn then to the notion of a Creator God. This is the concept that atheists find problematic, especially when this being is called ‘He’, has a personality of some kind (thus a ‘personal’ God), even more so when associated with the ‘God’ of the Old Testament, whose ‘behaviour’ and morality are sometimes highly questionable.
Even though I call myself ‘religious’, I also have exactly the same problems. Rather than deny the existence of God, however, I would seek to redefine what we understand by the word. In a further response to me, Ms. Dinesen concluded “we remain in the (impersonal) company of the Ultimate”, which again shows that our worldviews are in complete agreement; it’s just that I choose to call the impersonal Ultimate ‘God’.
On that theme, here is an interesting quote from someone that I’m sure most of you won’t have heard of, the Theosophist Edi Bilimoria. He is seeking a reunification of science and religion, and in his impressive book The Snake and the Rope² he makes the following statement: “There are four crucial misunderstandings that must be cleared before there can be any hope of genuine and sustainable progress, on a large scale”. The first of these is “the notion of an external, anthropomorphic ‘Creator God’ (who performs according to his fancy), as preached by the exoteric religions” (p239, his italics). I feel confident that Bilimoria would not describe himself as an atheist, however.
If we accept that there is transcendence, and it is defined as that which is beyond ourselves (another word for which therefore might be the supernatural), then we have to ask what is the ultimate source or cause of that transcendence. Rather than a Creator deity, could it possibly be an impersonal, cosmic, creative mind? That is what I choose to call God.
1. Viking, 2007
2. The Theosophical Publishing House, 2006