On The Use of You as “a God-Surrogate”

After publishing my previous post, “Why I am an Atheist,” I received several thoughtful responses, but I also received, through snail-mail, a friendly and heartfelt letter from a Catholic priest whom I’ve never met. I do not want to publish that letter here, but I would like to publish my response to it, if only to clarify some things for other readers who might have read my previous post in the same way. Among other things, the priest wrote that “in choosing You as a God-surrogate, you have set yourself up for [disappointment] when we decide to ask of you what you will not do, and so force you into another exit and the creation of other surrogates.” Here, in edited form, is what I wrote in response to this friendly priest.

Your idea that my concept of the You is a “God-surrogate” doesn’t feel like an accurate representation to me. Rather than substituting God’s role in the universe with You, I am saying that I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in You. I am saying that You are the most important influence in my life, and before considering what I want, I should consider what You want.

But (and this is part of the reason why the notion of a God-surrogate is a false one) You are not all-powerful (there is no one and nothing that is all-powerful). While I should consider Your wants and needs before my own, that does not mean I must rest my decisions and actions on Your wants and needs. As an American male who grew up with all of the mythologies such a designation entails, I possess just as strong a sense of individualism as the cowboy riding alone on the range and just as much inclination for telling the bosses to stick it. I might venerate You, but I am also not afraid of You.

(You might think that venerate is the wrong word here, since it goes back to “reverence,” which in turn, goes back to the Latin word vereri, which means “to stand in awe of, fear” — but it goes back even further to a Proto Indo-European root that meant, “to become aware of,” and it is in that sense that I use it: once I am aware of You, I should consider Your needs and wants in relation to my own).

On My Use of Shame

After publishing my previous post, “Why I am an Atheist,” I received several thoughtful responses, but I also received, through snail-mail, a friendly and heartfelt letter from a Catholic priest whom I’ve never met. I do not want to publish that letter here, but I would like to publish my response to it, if only to clarify some things for other readers who might have read my previous post in the same way. In short, the priest wrote that he felt sorry for me, and that he was sorry — “sad and apologetic” — that my “experience with religion was so dominated by shame.” Here, in edited form, was how I responded to this friendly priest.

There is no need to feel sorry for me. My experience of religion was not dominated by shame. As I wrote in my original blog post, the concept of shame I was talking about had less to do with the vernacular use of shame and more to do with the process of discerning right from wrong. I used the word “shame” to connote the visceral sense of this discernment, the feeling that what I was about to do or what I had done was wrong.

My blog post was an attempt to convey the feeling of belief, rather than the intellectual stance of it. As I proceeded through the post, I reformed the notion I introduced as shame into the idea of “recognizing a moral imperative.” Unfortunately, the latter phrase, by virtue of its use of “recognizing” (a term which is connected to the concept of “knowing,” rather “feeling”) lacks the bodily sensation I was trying to evoke in my description of belief as a sensory experience.

As a creative writer rather than a philosophical writer, I attempt to use words in an evocative sense, rather than a philosophical one.

Given that I wanted to communicate the sensory experience of the moral imperative, I found that the word “shame” carried more sensory weight than any intellectual phrase that came to mind. I suppose I could have gone with the sensation of love, which would have implied a positive moral force rather than a negative one, but if truth be told, when I believed in God, I was a teenager, and the negative moral force — as in, “don’t do that” — held more sway in my life than the positive one.

But again, this is nothing for you to feel sorry about. As I wrote in the blog post, I don’t (and didn’t) conceive of this sensory experience in a negative light. It played the same role in my life as a stitch in one’s side does during a basketball game, a simple message that says, “Something you’re doing is wrong, so stop it.” Shame is a message; nothing more, nothing less.