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.

Why I Am an Atheist

Let me begin with the notion that, as an atheist, it is not my job to disprove the notion of God. It is the job of those who believe in God (or gods) to prove God’s (or gods’) existence to me.

But that does not mean that I have nothing else to do.

The job of an atheist is to become a philosopher, or failing that, a scientist, or failing that, an artist, or failing that, conscious; to put it another way, the job of an atheist is to discover the wisdom of life, or failing that, the facts of life, or failing that, the beauty of life, or failing that, life.

And while it may not be my job as an atheist, it may be my duty to at least explain, for those who have difficulty with the concept, why it is that I do not believe in God (or gods). The explanation, I repeat, is not an argument attempting to disprove the existence of God (or gods); it is, instead, a courtesy, an attempt to communicate that is not (necessarily) an attempt to convince.

I equate the belief in God to a sensory experience. I say this as an individual who once believed in God. My belief was accompanied by the bodily sensation of certainty; but it was more than that as well, since “certainty” has a cold formality to it that does not give rise to the sensation I am talking about; rather than a coldness, there was a warmth to this sensation, a warmth that accompanies words like “awe” and is analogous to the sensation of drinking red wine in a candle-lit room, while outside, large flakes of falling snow drift lazily down to the street; a beautiful warmth that tells your body that all is right, and good, and true.

But it was also more than that.

The belief in God, while always accompanied by this warmth, also carried with it — not guilt, but shame, shame that, despite knowing what God wanted from me (to be the best person I could be), I still opted not to become that person. I did not experience this shame in a negative way. I understood it as a motivating force that would help me become a better person. If a certain action caused shame in me, such an action was probably not the best action to take. Seeing that sensation in a negative light would be akin to seeing one’s pain in a negative light; yeah, it hurts, but the hurt is itself a message — and there’s no reason to shoot the messenger (as a messenger).

So: a sensation of certainty, an awesome warmth, and — instead of shame, let’s call it “recognizing a moral imperative” — recognizing a moral imperative defines my notion of what it means to believe in God.

But there is a deeper aspect of it too, one that isn’t so easy to define.

It starts with a word like “revelation.” I have experienced a bodily sensation that told me, revealed to me, that I was in the presence of God. I knew it as certainly as I know that my cat is seated next to me right now. It was a sensation that brought tears to my eyes, the words “Thank you” to my lips, and the greatest bodily sense of inspiration that I’ve ever felt, the knowledge that no matter what I wrote next, it would have to, by virtue of God’s inspiration, be right, and good, and true. The words that came from my fingertips that night were, “I believe because…” and all of my writing since that moment (including this moment) has been an attempt to recover that sensation.

I write all of this now, say all of this now, as an atheist. But faced with such a sense of certainty and beauty and truth, not to mention revelation, even I am forced to ask: why on Earth would I call myself an atheist?

I call myself an atheist because in order to experience all of those same sensations again, all I have to do is reveal myself to you.

I call myself an atheist because it is no longer God that creates those feelings in me. It is you. It is the realization that these moments I am having right now, these absolutely private moments, are also shared with you. At bottom, it is the sensation that tells me that I am not alone, but its revelatory power comes not from its negation of my solitude; it comes from the understanding that I share this moment with you, and that you and I share it with so many other people (and places and things).

I sit here in my warmth and beauty and certainty because you — and everyone else — allow me to. There is not someone banging down my door, not someone stealing my food, not someone plotting my personal demise. I give thanks for that, not to God, but to you. I am alive because you — and everyone else — recognizes my right to live.

I can hear the objections now: “What about murder?” “What about the Nazis?” “What about Darfur?”

Those who are killed are so because their killers do not recognize their right to be alive. This extends beyond Dachau and Darfur and goes as deep as our white blood cells (if not deeper).

I hear other objections as well, from the Nietzscheans who would argue that such a perspective puts me in the weak position, and that such a position, by virtue of its weakness, is ill-favored. But even if I conceded the first position (which I do not), I cannot concede the second. Yes, to assume a position of weakness is to open oneself up to (potential) violence, but to live is to open oneself up to (potential) violence; (potential) violence is life’s ground state. To assume a position of weakness, then, is to say to (potential) violence, “I am not afraid of you.” Why would such a brave and valiant stance need to be considered ill-favored? It may be strategically unsound, provided one’s strategy aims for a longer life, but there are other strategies one can use during their lifetime. For those who aim toward charity and love, assuming a position of weakness might make the most strategic sense. In short, assuming a position of weakness need not be ill-favored.

But does “giving thanks to you — and everyone else — for recognizing my right to live” even put me in a position of weakness? I do not concede that it does. Rather than assuming the weak position, it assumes the position of one who is not afraid of you — and everyone else. I give you — and everyone else — the power to do as you will because I am not afraid of you.

Can you hurt me and the ones I love? Yes. Can you embarrass me and the ones I love? Probably. Can you destroy me, kill me, erase me and the ones I love? Yes. Yes you can.

But will I let you?

To thank you — and everyone else — is not to grovel for, nor to renounce, my right to live. To thank you — and everyone else — for allowing me the right to live does not mean you — and everyone else — can take it back without a fight.

So while I can hear the objections of the Nietzscheans, I do not feel the need to respond. To give thanks is not to be weak.

I can also hear the objections of God’s believers, those who say that I do not live by virtue of their good graces (as I claim), but by virtue of God’s. While I may continue to live because they don’t kill me, I only live in the first place because God gave me (or for those who believe in a “God of the gaps,” gave humanity) that spark — call it a soul, call it consciousness, it means the same: that spark of subjectivity, the ability to feel, and think, and act with free will.

To these objections I answer: I equate the belief in God with a bodily sensation, and I experience this same sensation — the same certainty, the same awesome warmth, the same moral imperative, and the same tears, thanks, and inspiration — when I choose, instead, to believe in you. I have shifted the object of my veneration from God to you, and in that shift, erased God from my life.

While I cannot claim to solve the mystery of subjectivity, I do not feel a need to answer such mysteries with the answer of “God.” I look back on the great unraveling of mysteries over the past 250,000 years, and I think to myself, what mysteries will be unraveled tomorrow? Subjectivity will be a big one (if not “the” big one), but I have faith (yes, faith) that its unraveling will come. I may not be the one to unravel it, but I have faith that you — or someone similar to you — will be willing and able to unravel it for me (which will be one more reason to offer you my thanks, and one more reason to venerate your power and majesty).

And that is why I call myself an atheist. Because I do not believe in God. Instead, I believe in you.

Keep your momentum

“Once you begin writing, try to continue to write. Avoid any delays in your writing schedule. That doesn’t mean you must write continuously, but you should strive to write consistently. Putting off the writing of your book for too long a period can destroy your enthusiasm. It’s like when you vow to call a friend. You put it off for a week, then another week, and soon, you’ve postponed it for so long you’re almost embarrassed to call. To maintain your momentum, your passion, your zeal, work on your book regularly. Don’t allow too much time to pass between writing sessions.” — Gene Perret