Do Theists and Atheists have the same Deepest Experience?

Comparing the fears of monotheists and atheists

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In war we demonize the enemy, because if we didn’t and we were to win, we’d be triumphing over our equals and by extension ourselves. The same is true in a culture war, such as that between the religious and the secular. However, those two groups have something ironic in common.

Life with God Watching

To see this, consider what it would be like to be a monotheist, to believe that a single, all-powerful and all-knowing person created and controls or intervenes in the universe. You’d have to believe that God transcends our world but knows everything that happens in it. But what would having that belief be like in practice? One useful analogy is the reality TV show in which contestants know they’re being watched at all moments by the show’s producers and by millions of viewers.

We know from the Hawthorne effect, the Watching-Eye effect, the Pygmalion effect, Goodhart’s law, and similar findings, that knowing you’re being watched can change your behaviour. A scientific experiment can be ruined if the subjects realize they’re in an experiment. So if you were in a reality TV show, knowing there are cameras all around and that anything you do might be observed and judged, you’d likely exaggerate certain aspects of your character to appeal to the viewers. After all, the show is a game with a prize for the winner. You might want to fit into some niche defined by the expectations of the judges and fellow contestants.

However, if the show extends over a long period, for an entire season of television, you likely couldn’t maintain the performance of that persona or public role for long, because doing that would be exhausting. Some individuals are more grounded and less superficial than others, but even a social butterfly or a method actor or comedian can’t be “on” indefinitely. Eventually, you forget the cameras are there and you revert to being your ordinary self, playing the role only in spurts.

That analogy with religion is limited, since the monotheist may believe God is eternal or timeless, so God wouldn’t be watching at every moment so much as he’d be aware of how the universe would unfold, from a dimension that preexists the moment of creation. Still, the result is the same, so a similar dynamic should play out in the religious context, with the difference being that God’s reality show would last your whole life, not just for a month or so, whereupon you’d be rewarded or kicked out of the house on Judgment Day.

Thus, the average monotheist fluctuates between fulfilling what she takes to be God’s expectations and falling short of that performance. At church or temple, for example, this religious person will behave as though she believes God is watching, since that arena is supposed to be part of God’s house. Of course, God isn’t supposed to be blind to what transpires outside the confines of a sacred place. But few can keep up the performance for their entire life, so they “slip into sin.”

Mind you, religion is supposed to transform your character so you don’t have to fake excellence in God’s sight. In Christianity, for example, you’re supposed to be “born again” and given a spiritual nature that enables you to intuit what God would want you to do in each situation. However that may be, religions distinguish between saints and priests, on the one hand, and lay believers on the other, because religions assume that only a special minority can live each moment as though they believe God is watching them.

It’s one thing to believe you’re born again, but it’s another to actually be so, to apply that theological principle for your life’s duration. It’s easy for the monotheist to forget God is watching, because she believes God isn’t identical to the universe, which means God is hidden from her and there’s so much else happening in the world — so much that’s more tangible and pressing to embodied creatures like her — that can distract the Jew, Christian, or Muslim from her spiritual goals.

From Fear of God to Love of God

There’s a similar lapse in the monotheist’s idea of how we should relate to God. In the Jewish scriptures, the primary attitude a believer is supposed to have towards God is one of fearfulness. You were supposed to fear God, because God was taken to be the Lord of creation. In Gen.22:12, Abraham is praised for being “God-fearing,” because he shows he’s willing to sacrifice his son Isaac as God had asked. Proverbs 9:10 says “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” A similar concept in Islam is taqwa, the fear of God that drives you to piety and forbearance.

This fear of God needn’t be a superficial dread of being punished by the Almighty; the deeper fear is due to an understanding of what the monotheist believes to be God’s transcendent majesty, in comparison to which we are small and insignificant. This deeper “fear” is more like awe towards something glorious.

In Christianity, however, divine glory is identified with a man named “Jesus.” Consequently, the God who became that man is thought of not so much as lord or king but as Jesus’s father. There’s God the Father and God the Son. The New Testament says we should fear God’s judgment but not God himself, because God revealed himself to be compassionate in the person of Jesus who was willing to die on our behalf.

This is why Pope Francis said, in a general audience in 2014 that, “The fear of the Lord, the gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean being afraid of God, since we know that God is our Father that always loves and forgives us.” Christians labor to reconcile the older, Jewish conception of the monotheist’s proper relation to God, with the Christian one. They labor, too, to show that the particularity of their God doesn’t imply that Christianity is polytheistic.

The reason for the slide from fear to love is clear. Jews take God to be beyond our capacity for representation. Thus, Jews famously forbid “graven images” of God. Even to say God’s name was forbidden to all except the High Priest on the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. By contrast, Christians identify God with a common man, with something that could be seen, heard, smelled, and touched.

If God is beyond our comprehension, the proper response is fear in the sense of awe or humiliation in view of our comparative limitations. If God isn’t so different after all, there’s no need for the fear reserved for that which we can’t hope to understand. We can understand Jesus’s words and deeds as they’re represented in the New Testament, so fear is replaced with the kind of love Jesus showed for his heavenly father: familial love. We can be part of the Christian family, becoming adopted children of God through faith in or imitation of God’s “only begotten Son” Jesus.

The slide from awe to love reaches its nadir with the so-called “family values” of conservative American Christians. The proper relation to God comes to be demonstrated by something as base and animalistic as love for your human family members. So we move historically from the Jewish prophets ranting about God’s supernatural superiority to idols, human emperors, and anything else we can image, to the Christian empires with their Jesuitical excuses for every kind of unspiritual practice, from war to persecution of “heretics” to slavery to pedophile priests to Republican “free markets” and Trumpism. From a Jewish or Islamic view, the Christian concept of God is idolatrous, so however beneficial Christian agape or charity may be, helping the downtrodden isn’t a substitute for an encounter with the God that’s supposed to transcend the physical universe.

Of course, from the Christian perspective, a purely transcendent deity becomes practically irrelevant. Again, you eventually forget the cameras are rolling if the cameras are hidden from view; likewise, if God is invisible and undefined by space and time, it’s easy to act as though there were no such God. Authentic, mystical monotheism becomes practically atheistic, and the Jew and Muslim have to cling to arbitrary or anachronistic codes of conduct as substitutes for the hidden deity that’s exceedingly hard to find.

Encountering the Otherness of Nature

Let’s compare, then, the monotheist’s attitude towards God, with the atheist’s relation towards the world. As we’ve seen, monotheism begins with awe, shifts into love as the resistance to profane anthropocentrism wanes, and ends in the Christian compromises with secular and biological routines.

Now there are two main kinds of encounters for the atheist, that with nature and that with the artificial world we build to block out nature. In big cities, we can spend years or decades without contacting much that hasn’t passed through the filter of human ingenuity. When we interact with houses, offices, traffic, cuisine, art, the internet, and with other encultured persons, we’re extending our experience of ourselves. Collectively, we see our society or our species reflected back to us from our artificial refuges. Likewise, when we introspect, we cycle through our thoughts and feelings that are at the heart of this emergent level of natural evolution, the level of intelligent life. The risk of this kind of secular experience, of being immersed in reflections of our preferences and biases is that we become self-centered and hubristic.

What happens, then, when we encounter the world that’s still untouched by human involvement? What is the emotional essence of that experience? Initially, thousands of years ago, we worshipped nature, because we assumed natural processes are alive and filled with spirit. This, however, was animism, which was quasitheistic. The true nontheistic experience of nature depends on a hyperrational outlook that we associate with modern science or with outbreaks of philosophy, as happened in ancient Greece, China, and India and in early-modern Europe.

Suppose, for example, you climb a mountain. The mountain is formed over millions of years of shifts in the tectonic plates below the earth’s surface; the edges of the plates come together, crumple, and push enormous slabs into the air. Now suppose you’re able to ponder what it’s like to be standing on a mountain, having set aside the kinds of thoughts and feelings that flow from your dependence on the artificial world. That is, suppose you’re able to experience the mountain for what it really is rather than humanizing the valleys, cliffs, ridges, and summit and treating them like means to a human end, such as backgrounds for an Instagram selfie. What feelings towards the mountain would you have at the point of appreciating the mountain’s underlying indifference to everything our species has done and will do?

I submit that that authentic secular experience of nature is similar to the monotheist’s most authentic experience of God, since both should be characterized by a profound sense of fear or awe. Perceiving the mountain for what it objectively is should impress upon you your puniness in relation to deep time. You might even collapse to your knees as you begin to appreciate the madness of that cloud of self-centered chatter and presumptions that hangs around civilization.

There are some obvious differences between the monotheistic and the secular encounters between self and other. The transcendent God isn’t directly encountered but only imagined or reasoned into being for the believer. Moreover, as nonhuman as God is supposed to be, Jews, Muslims, and especially Christians can’t help but project human-like qualities onto the deity. In that case, God becomes an extension of us, rather like the artificial cityscapes which act as so many distorting mirrors that mesmerize us with self-reflections.

By contrast, nature can be present to the senses. The otherness of mountains — not to mention the vastness of outer space — isn’t the product of speculation or casuistry. True, to encounter that otherness we have to suppress the noise of cultural conventions and avail ourselves of some degree of objective understanding of the world. But that encounter is available and it’s perhaps even the primary, most genuine spiritual or existential experience, a grasping of otherness that’s not so susceptible to our overeager personifications.

Fear of God is the closest to that atheistic confrontation with nature’s pre- and posthuman glory, since it’s hard to see how you could socialize with that which is so far beyond your understanding. The social relation between God and “his” creatures would be like that between a master and his slaves, which is why scriptures frequently compare God to lords and kings. If that social metaphor is only an arbitrary imposition of human vanity onto something that’s supposed to be beyond everything in the natural universe, the notion that we should love God, ask God for favours in prayer, or be part of his family is grotesque.

Likewise, there’s no sense in loving a mountain. There’s no socializing with nature, as is made plain in the element of chance in our affairs and in the midst of so-called natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, or ice ages. Fear of that nonliving-but-still-strangely-creative otherness seems to provoke our frantic efforts into devising cognitive filters and artificial fortifications. We prefer to live with ourselves most of all, with our friends and family and with the cultures and civilized, human worlds that function according to our plans and self-images. Least of all do we want to dwell on the implications of the universe’s palpable inhumanity.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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