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Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

If God exists, I think God is so far out of our field of experience and frame of reference as to be essentially incomprehensible to humans.  All of the world’s religions appear to be obviously objectively false.  However, I think that humans make sense out of the insensible by thinking in metaphor, sort of like putting masks that we understand on God so as to deal with something which we do not understand.  I think religion, religious belief, and religious practice can be positive, productive, and extremely useful both to society and to the individual, even if it is not objectively true.  In fact, sometimes I am inclined to think that people can actually in many ways be better off with religion (though not all kinds of religion: a sort of Taoist awareness that “the thing that can be talked about is not the actual eternal thing” is incredibly important, and serves to neuter our dangerous–perhaps even insane–fundamentalist impuses).  Since all religions are false but religion is nevertheless positive, I should be able to simply pick the one that appeals most to me and self-consciously run with it.  However, I seem to be completely incapable of doing so.

(For what it’s worth, alternately, if God does not exist outside the human psyche, then none of this changes.  We can label the unfathomable parts of our own existence and psyche “God” and essentially move on.)

Why am I incapable of picking one and just enjoying it?  All kinds of reasons, really.  Fear of commitment as a holdover from bad experiences with Mormonism (and a knowledge that “just trying it out” is actually a kind of commitment that can result in sliding down to total conversion if you’re not careful).  Persistent gut feeling that the objective truth of religion matters (another holdover from Mormonism).  A nagging feeling that all religions are equally, pitifully inadequate when it comes to accounting for all of life and existence’s complexities (even leaving cosmological models completely out of it), and a concurrent distaste for the idea of flavoring my entire life with any particular religious belief’s seasoning.  Nervousness about the ease of self-brainwashing.  The desire for some kind of mystical experience as a catalyst.  And plain old reluctance, like when you’re about to jump off of something tall and your legs seize up and your body just won’t let you do it.

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about any of this, either.

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This one isn’t about Jesus at all, but as it’s kind of a continuation of my last post, and I’m feeling silly, well… hey, I don’t have to justify the names of my own blog posts to anyone.

Like I’ve said before, although I haven’t been blogging, I have been continuing to think things through and to engage in conversation with people about my standard topics of life, the universe, and everything.  In particular, I have had some interesting discussions with my brother (who comments here periodically under the nom de plume Racticas), who is a grad student in religious studies.  One of the idea sets we’ve been tossing around lately is Neopaganism.

When talking paganism, the issue of polytheism naturally comes up.  Polytheism is definitely an idea that has to be accomodated rather than assimilated, because as western people we come into the picture with a fairly heavy bias towards monotheism.  My Mormon background gets periodically accused of a polytheistic bent by some Evangelical critics, but even as an ex-Mormon, I don’t think the accusation is appropriate.  Although Mormonism posits a comparatively limited God, believes that the members of the Godhead (father, son, and holy ghost) are completely distinct in substance, and accepts the possibility (or even necessity) of the existence of other gods coequal to, subordinate to, or even superior to Our Heavenly Father, in practice Mormonism is still thoroughly monotheistic.  The existence of other gods is an academic possibility for Mormons, and the only god they deal with and the only god who has ultimate power over this world is God the Father.

I go into detail about the Mormon perspective because it’s my background and thus informs where I am now, and accusations to the contrary notwithstanding, my background, and thus my default position, is monotheistic.  And I bring all of this up in order to admit my preexisting bias when I then explain why I don’t believe in literal polytheism.

Which brings me to my point: I don’t believe in literal polytheism.  I have enough trouble accepting the existence of one personal god; the idea of many personal gods seems even less plausible.  As figures of myth, the gods and goddesses of ancient people seem much more plausible to me as either metaphors of the human condition or as metaphoric personifications of different aspects of the transcendent divine, i.e. Masks of God.  I simply do not believe, however, that there are a bunch of real literal distinct divine beings living on Mount Olympus or in Asgard or another dimension or a spiritual plane or something.  I just don’t buy it.

Now that’s not to say that I think the gods and goddesses of myth (including Jesus and the Father) are useless things.  If there is a real transecndent divinity, I am inclined to think it impossible to deal with it directly in any kind of meaningful way.  Thus, we may need personifications and metaphors to be able to approach the divine in a way that our psyches can handle.  In other words, we may be putting the masks on God because otherwise God is so far outside of our experience and existence that the unmasked God would be meaningless, inaccessible, and incomprehensible to us.  I think of it like this: if a two-dimensional being existed, it could never comprehend us in our fullness as three-dimensional beings.  The best it could do would be to imagine a two-dimensional representation of us, but even then it could never be a complete representation.  Being two-dimensional the best it could do was approximate a certain aspect, slice, or facet (or simplified agglomeration of several aspects) of our three-dimensional reality.  If God exists at all outside our psyches, then so it is with God.

At its heart, this is what Christianity is all about–God become man so that man can relate to God.  Its the essence of Hinduism as well, where all things, the gods and goddesses especially, are merely aspects of Brahman.

Alternately, if “God” is just something in our heads, something embedded in the human psyche, then I still think that anthropomorphized representations of God or gods are the best way for us to make sense of it.  This is the Joseph Campbell route.  We make sense of existence primarily by metaphor and symbol, and that includes conceptualizing symbolic and metaphorical gods.

The moral of my story is that if I were to be a pagan of any stripe, I couldn’t be a strict, literal polytheist.  And even if I were to have a mystical encounter with a god or gods, I would still strongly suspect that I had merely put a mask on something otherwise completely transcendent and incomprehensible so that I could comprehend it, as opposed to thinking that whatever god I had encountered had a real, literal, separate and distinct existence of its own.  Unless it told me it did and struck me with lighning for being an unbeliever or something.  I have a pragmatic streak, as well: at my house, people who didn’t believe in Santa Claus didn’t get presents from him.

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What then is consciousness? What is the “I,” the thing that is doing the observing when I think about my thoughts? Some people posit a soul. Ebon Muse proposes a construct along the lines of distributed intelligence. Scientists call it the “hard problem” of the study of consciousness.

If the consciousness, the watcher that is observing the mental processes and the metaphorical movie screen in your head, is a matter of distributed intelligence, then we can think as a unified consciousness the same way that swarms of bugs can act as a whole unit even though the decision-making isn’t happening at any one point in the swarm. Your brain is thus the hyper-complex neurological analogy to a swarm. Every mind is a hive mind.

If such a thing is possible on the small scale, then I find it entirely possible to imagine that it happens on the large scale, or even on the largest possible scale. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to think that the universe, the cosmos, has a kind of consciousness that is composed of distributed intelligence. It wouldn’t be a consciousness like ours- it would be so big and in such a different context that not only would it be so alien we could never interface with it, but the sheer difference in scale and the nature of consciousness means that it would be categorically impossible to wrap our minds around what it is.

Yes, we are part of it. Everything is part of it. If it exists, that is.

But if it isn’t conscious or intelligent in any way at all, it still exists. The cosmos unquestionably is. And to me it is equally unquestionable that separateness is not, in fact. Thus, the cosmos not only is, but it is us. We’re part of it when we rest in dreamless sleep, when your brain is not tricking you into believing that you’re separate from other things. We’re also part of it when we’re dead. Actually, we’re always part of it, but there are times when nothing is trying to trick us into believing that we aren’t, and that there’s a difference between me and you. But at those odd times, like when we meditate and lose track of our individual identities, our Self merges into the Whole.

What could be more fantastic?

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Ebon Musings has a wealth of absolutely fantastic essays on atheism.  I think they are definitely worth reading.  The author is reasonable (admitting the possibility of being wrong) and sensible, and I think his writing, taken as an aggregate, makes one of the strongest cases for atheism that I have encountered.

In particular, I have found the following to be illuminating and/or valuable:

One More Burning Bush, on the argument from divine hiddenness.  Also the Cosmic Shall Game.  These deal with the basic problem of “if God wants me to know him and worship him and be a specific religion, why does he macke it so freaking hard to figure out?”  That’s been a major issue for me that has ultimately led me to consider atheism.

The Argument From Locality, on the problem with the apparent non-universality of pretty much every religion, which is a concern I have expressed in the past on this blog.

The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, which poses a host of possible events that would make an atheist change his mind.  They would certainly make things easier on me as a seeker.  The One True Religion is closely related.

The Ineffible Carrot and the Infnite Stick, about morality and atheism.

A Much Greater God, which is a powerful statement on what kind of God seems to really be consistent with the universe as we know it.  Pretty string Deist leanings.

Finally,  the good essay, Life of Wonder, and the absolutely fantastic piece on love called Spiritual Fire, Both are about life and love and how losing God doesn’t really mean losing the things that are really important.

The ideas in these essays dovetail almost completely with not only many of the thoughts and conclusions I have been having and coming to lately, but also to many of the core issues I have grappled with during my entire post-Mormon search for truth and for God.  Like I said, they are worth reading.

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These days I have been thinking about consciousness quite a bit. I don’t know that I am at the point where I have soemthing to report, but I did read an excellent article by Steven Pinker on the topic, from Time magazine.

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Often when you say you don’t believe in God, but you believe in right and wrong, you get the “well, then how can you possibly have a basis for right and wrong without God?”

Let me translate: “an action’s moral rightness is determined solely by the whim of an authority figure.”  Or, more simply: “what makes something right or wrong is that the guy in charge said to not do it.”

What are you, six years old? Right and wrong determined solely because “I said so,” and because you get punished for doing what’s wrong? Give me a break. Child development time.

Lawrence Kohlberg posited a theory of moral development that I think is spot-on. It involves stages that a child progresses through while they develop morality. There are three stages that each have substages. The three stages are pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

The pre-conventional stage is broken up into first Obedience and Punishment Orientation, and then Self-interest Orientation. When babies start out, right and wrong are determined by what you get punished for. Then, right and wrong are determined by what reward you get for doing the right hing or refraining from the wrong thing.

Next come the conventional stages: Interpersonal Accord and Conformity (the good girl/good boy attitude), and then Authority and Social-order Maintaining Orientation (law and order morality).  In other words, as you develop, your sense of right and wring is determined by the way others perceive you: being seen as a “good boy” validates you personally and gives you personal satisfaction, so you act accordingly.  From there, you develop into a stage where morality is based on its functions- an authority figure dictates the rules, and everyone is happy if they obey them, because society works smoother and life is easier when we are obedient and follow the rules.

After that come the post-conventional stages, which are Social Contract Orientation and then finally the apex of Universal Ethical Principles.  At the social contract orientation, your morals are based on societally agreed-upon norms.  it’s like the law and order orientation, except it relies on a general consensus instead of the dictates of an authoirty figure.  You follow the rules we have all more or less agreed on because we have all agreed on the rules, and life/society/everything is better when we play together well, and we can expect and rely on reciprocal adherence to the social contract.

At the top is the idea of universal ethical principles, which mirrors Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  In other words, morality is defined by its universality.  It’s not morality-by-committee and it’s not democratic.  It’s acting morally based on principles that can be applied universally.  If it would be okay for anyone to do it, it would be okay for you to do it.

The other way to formulate it?  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Fear of hell and a wish for heaven are pre-conventional morality and I reject the idea that God, the highest of all beings, if he even exists, functions on the basest level.  “It’s wrong because God said it was wrong” is at best, conventional morality.  It’s mediocrity, nothing more.  If God exists, I likewise reject the idea that he is not the highest, most advanced of all beings.  He invites us up to his level, not the other way around.  In other words, he invites us up the the supernal realm of universal ethical principles.  The funny thing is, once you get to post-conventional morality, morality is no longer dependent on an authority figure, e.g., God.

But ditto for the Golden Rule.  If it’s true, it’s not dependent on the will of deity for force and effect.  It’s simply true because of its universality.

So, does post-conventional morality, not needing God for morality, mean we don’t need God?   I don’t think so.  That presumes that the only function of God is to dictate morality to us, and I think God is a lot bigger than just that one role, if there is a God at all.

A good argument can be made that God and morality are malleable enough so that no matter what our own moral development is, we can still no right and wrong.  In other words, heaven and hell are there for people who need to be scared into doing what’s right,  and lists of commandments are there for people who never quite make it to post-conventional morality.

There’s something to be said for that, since it’s avery inclusive view, and since Kohlberg’s theory assumes that not everyone develops all the way up to the post-conventional stages.  If not everyone can reach post-conventional morality, then it makes sense for God to fashion a system that still compels those people to act morally.

What doesn’t make sense, though, is the idea that God would invent commandments and punishments at those lower levels that actually conflict with post-conventional morality.  No universal ethical principle is violated by homosexuality.  Homosexuality does not implicate the Golden Rule at all.  So if God operates on Universal Principles, it would makes sense for his conventional commandments to be in line with those universal principles, not arbitrary ridiculous stuff.

If some people need commandments in order to act morally, then it would make sense for those commandments to be things like “don’t rape people,” i.e., things that are also universal principles.  Not things like “don’t drink coffee,” that don’t even come into the Golden Rule’s analysis.

And I have spoken my peace on it.

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I grew up Mormon, which means I grew up in a Religion.

That’s Religion with a capital R. Religion with observances and commandments and organization and hierarchy and a complete cosmological view. Religion is the only way I know how to relate to the divine, really. I’ve never been that spiritual; I’ve never had what you could call a relationship with the divine.

The extent of my spirituality has been “warm fuzzies” over things I already knew (which may simply be a learned/conditioned pituitary response, thanks Simeon!), but that’s nothing like a relationship with God or God’s presence or anything. I always prayed, but it was more like Finny from A Separate Peace: “always say your prayers in case there turns out to be a God.” I felt good about praying, but it was more of an “I’m satisfied because I consistently pray, so I can check off that box and maybe God will be impressed with my consistency and not damn me for all the other stuff.” Either that or it was invoking the genie in the sky to grant my wishes. Which sometimes worked and sometimes did not, but not consistently enough to be taken seriously as something other than coincidence.

In contrast, my wife has always seemed to have a relationship with God. She wasn’t raised in a religous home, so for her conversion was not a change in policy but an initial introduction. She’s never been too wound up about doctrine or dogma, because her religion has always been one of spirituality. In the forefront is her relationship with God, and other stuff doesn’t matter that much.

I envy her, because I don’t know how to do that.

My brother is also more spiritual. Although he qualifies his experiences and acknowledges that they might very well by psychological, he’s always had a meaningful prayer relationship with God, and has often felt God’s presence and comfort. This is why years of praying about the Mormon gospel were so difficult for him: he had a communicative relationship with God, so why didn;t Godtell him the Book of Mormon was true?

But I digress. He has had spirituality, but I have only ever had religion. So when I leave Mormonism and want to find something to fill the spiritual hole, I go looking for a religion. And I get frustrated and “mad at God” when I find that they all look false to me. What am I supposed to do, then?

Be spiritual? What does that mean? I’m skeptical of it. I’ve never “been spiritual” before. To me, being spiritual has always just been the mental component of being religious. In other words, being spiritual just meant being good and thinking religious thoughts.

The thing is, I just realized this yesterday. I don;t know what to do about it.

Even there- i’m looking for somethign to do about it. I’m looking for religion and religious behavior, but I’ve talked myself out of religion. So I’m left feeling more than a little alone. What does it mean? What am I supposed to do with it? How do I “get spirituality?”

Even if I joined a religion, I would just begin behaving religiously. not the same thing.

I read Donald Miller talk about Christian Spirituality in a nonreligious sense, and it sounds great. I’d like some of that! But I don’t know how to make that happen in my life.

This is why I have been wanting a mystical experience. Something nonreligious, but unequivocably spiritual. Soemthign more tangible that I can use to base spirituality on. but it seems to not be coming.

Maybe my beautiful and sexy wife is right that I’m demanding a lot of God without making rom for him to talk to me. I was meditating for a while, but it is really hard, and it’s tough to make room for it.

I’m not sure about praying. Like I said, I grew up Mormon, which means a view of God that is like a human. Mormon God has a body and takes up physical space and stuff, so when you pray it’s like using a magical telephone to talk to an actual being, like a human but perfect, that can hear and answer the way a person does. Of course, God never seemed ot answer in words when I talked to Him in words, and I’m not sure that makes much sense, if he’s a person with a mouth and ears and all.

My conclusion is merely that spirituality is elusive. I’ve been confusing it with religion. I realize that now, but at the same time it doesn’t help me because if spirituality is not religion, then I don’t think I know what spirituality is.

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God’s Gender

In a totally different vein, I’ve been wondering if my problem with God is that I’ve just gotten her gender wrong.  I grew up Mormon, with a very patriarchial idea of what God is (more patriarchial than most religions, I think, since Mormon God is an actual physical being with a male gender who even has a wife or wives).

Maybe the God that exists for me is really a goddess, and because I’ve been conceptualizing her wrong for all these years, I haven’t been able to make the round peg fit the square hole.  Maybe I’ve been needing something I didn’t know I needed.  It’s hard to tell.

I’ve been thinking atheistic thoughts lately, I’ll admit. But if there is a God, maybe he is a she after all, and maybe that’s what I’ve been missing. Or needing,and not finding.

Thanks to Bored In Vernal for the catalyst to this.

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Afetr a talk with my beautiful and sexy wife last night, I think the time has come for me to make some kind of decision. It doesn’t have to be a decision for life or anything, but right now I’m spinning my wheels intellectually/analytically and getting nowhere but more frustrated. Like I said earlier, I think I’m at the point where I’ve pretty much talked myself out of everything, but yet I still have a longing for something.

I don’t think I’m going to get anywhere else on my own, so I need to pick a path, at least to try it out and see if it works for me exerientially- or specifically if it can experientially fill the analytical holes that I have poked in pretty much everything.

I’m indecisive though, between two paths: Druidry and Christianity. I realize that there is some precedent for Christian Druidry, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

Anyway, I have concerns with both. Not the least of which is that with either one, I will get caught up in it and decide that it’s Right, but for the wrong reasons.

I have discussed my concerns with Christianity at length elsewhere, so I won’t do it again here. I should probably discuss my concerns with Druidry, but I don’t have time right now- I have to go to class. So, expect more later.

Alternately, I suppose, I could just continue down this path of meditation, appreciate it for what it is, and see where it takes me.

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The night before last when I had my “Great Plain” meditation, I also had an odd impression of sunlit carved standing stones on a green hill. More than once. It seemed more like the product of whimsical thought than anything else, but last night when meditating, I decided to investigate a little further.

The whole sequence was jumbles and discontinuous, so don’t get the wrong impression from the way I explain it.

After some centering exercises including “going to my room,” I was able to find myself among those stones, but no sooner did I get there than the sky grew dark, the trees withered, and the stones grew thinner, taller, and more frightening. There was also a crow, and the distinct presence of a dark figure behind one of the stones that I thought might be the God/god I had conversed with a few days ago. I wasn’t sure.

I was sure that this wasn’t what I was looking for, so I changed into a bird and flew- a strange feeling of detachment and flying as I focused inward, until I came upon the sunlit hill again. However, once again, the sky grew dark and everything turned gray. The crow was there again.

A third time I found myself in the form of a bird and flying- almost an ecstatic metitative state (though I think some of it was just the fact that my eyes were crossed, and that always makes you feel weird). Once again I came to the stones, and ocne again the sky was darkened, the stones changed, the raven/crow landed on them, and I had the impression of a dark figure.

For no real appreciable reason, I yelled out the name of Odin, not crying out to him to save me or anything, but more to request his presence. A large figure appeared, claiming to be Odin, looking like something out of a video game, ogre-sized with a horned helmet and a great beard. After a few minutes of conversation (I don’t really remember what we talked about), I decided that this was not in fact Odin or any other god, but the impression of the dark figure behind the stones was still there.

I spent the rest of the meditation in a focused state, rapid-firing questions about faith, religion, and reality at God or whatever, not visualizing anything and not getting any answers. The whole thing seemed strange and powerful, though, and I kind of had to decompress for awhile afterward.

When I did the Tarot layout the other day (with the Hanged Man as the end), the card that crossed me, i.e., my obstacles, was the death card. Of all its meanings, the ones I focused on were “end” and “corruption.” Funny that corruption has played a role in my meditative exercises- first with the face of God on the path, and now with the standing stones. Maybe I’m off the mark here. I don’t know.

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