What is secular theism? and how can it help?

The case that I find myself trying to make to secularists most often is that theism is natural. The drives to deify, to define certain things or activities as sacred, to worship (“We’re not worthy!”), to petition the universe (even atheists will do this, say, when a basketball is teetering on the edge of a hoop), to sense subtle entities, to interpret intentionality behind single occurrences or entire courses of events— all of these behaviors which contribute to a theistic outlook are normal, and they are not, individually or collectively, signs of mental illness or even cause for concern.

Willingly engaging in these kinds of behaviors isn’t something that most secularists would readily do. Because of the stigma associated with theism in secular circles, many secularists wouldn’t even try to imagine valid reasons for engaging in such behaviors. Secularists often decry these behaviors, and theism in general, as “traps” that people can only “fall for”. They implicitly assert that people cannot rationally pursue a theistic outlook.

So what if a person has always just kind of, you know, wanted to? What if they’ve felt drawn to pray? What if they’ve secretly held onto gods their whole life? What if they suspect that they’ve sensed the elusive divine and wanted a closer look? Hell, what if they’re just curious? What can they do then?

Here are my proposed ways to foster theistic outlooks which are in line with the values of secularism:

1.) Begin by dividing the components of theism into two categories: things which we can measure, and things which we cannot know.

Things we can measure: We can observe how theism affects people on a large scale, and we can analyze individual case studies and stories, theists’ practices, their perceptions, and the course of their reported experiences. On an individual level people can observe their own thought processes and emotions as they adopt new practices, or interpret their experiences in different ways.

Things we cannot know: We cannot know if there is some objective or material divine force, or universal gods that exists in the natural world. We cannot know whether there are supernatural forces which drive these stories, these perceptions, and the changes in thoughts and feelings which come from adopting theistic practices.

By making no assumptions about that which we cannot know, and focusing on what we can observe, secular principles can be preserved in the exploration of theistic practices.

2.) Next, experiment with perceptions and practices, for science!

While there’s no way of knowing for certain whether any material gods exist out in the world, people can still experiment with theistic perspectives. They can seek out gods in mythologies or through other sources, like video games! They can also create gods in their own minds, imbuing them with properties, personalities, and other characteristics as they see fit. After finding or creating such entities they can observe how the entities affect them, whether they are inspired by them or indifferent toward them, and how they are or aren’t moved to commune with them.

Even the most shunned perceptions in secular circles are not off limits in this kind of experimentation. It’s okay to interpret life events as the work of one’s gods. It’s fine to hear the voices of gods, or to perceive gods as subtle entities, and to interact with them. Idol worship, whether it be of bronze sculptures or colorful vinyl figurines, is definitely on the table— or the altar! Try it all; see what happens.

So long as interpretations of any god’s involvement in a person’s life aren’t regarded as objective truths, and so long as perceptions of gods are understood to be subjective, there really isn’t much room for secularists to shun these aspects of theism, especially when there is valuable perspective to be gained from such interpretations and perceptions. For example, if a person interprets a certain life event to be the doing of a god, they can also consider why that god may have willed the outcome that they did. What would that god want for them to learn or deduce from such a life event? The age old art of discerning the wills of personal gods can lead to insights that may not have appeared on a person’s proverbial radar otherwise.

Beyond insights, there is also the matter of fulfillment in general. If people find that they are more fulfilled after adopting or creating gods to pray to, to interact with, or to help them glean greater insight, that’s also very important to consider.

3.) Compare the experiences of others, or look to history and anthropology.

By looking at common threads in experiences, among contemporaries or throughout history, we can deduce common behavioral and perceptual threads in various theistic outlooks. Many of these threads, like those I covered at the beginning, were things that I had to deduce for myself as I struggled to understand my own theism.

There’s another important aspect to this practice of comparing, and that is simply listening to the experiences of others without biased judgment. As I try to explain myself to secularists I run up against antitheistic walls time and time again. According to many secularists: I should not perceive gods, I should not interpret my gods as having any significant role in the events of my life, and finally I should not need gods in the first place.

It’s because of this attitude that I have to make almost pleading posts like this one, from which I quote the following:

This wasn’t delusional behavior, but rather natural behavior that inherently theistic people may exhibit. These tendencies didn’t point to any objective truths, but there were consequences for suppressing them, like never feeling in touch, at peace, or at home with the things that actually stood some chance of helping me to grow into myself. (When I finally accepted that I had gods I finally felt like I was able to achieve some sense of self-assuredness.)

My gods are not delusions, and calling them such is highly disrespectful, like calling the fact that I don’t fully identify as woman or female delusional is disrespectful. These are all things that I need, for reasons which people who don’t need them cannot fathom.

My reality is not a fantasy. I am less in denial and more myself than ever before.

Atheists may be hesitant to accept that people like me exist. People whose lives make more sense after they adopt a theistic outlook defy presumptive assertions that gods are dangerous and pointless. Same with people who find personal fulfillment by way of divine communion. I’m a much happier person now that my life feels more like an ongoing dance with divine forces than anything involving carbon atoms and laws of physics. If that doesn’t sound like heresy against rationalism, then I don’t know what does!

Many rational people benefit from adopting outlooks similar to my own, even if it’s just from the relief of mysterious dysphoria that visits people who are not well suited to atheism. If such people don’t adopt outlooks like my own, then they pursue established religions or Truth-seeking circles, trying to find that which they need.

I suggest that everyone, theistically inclined or not, look to people when seeking the truth about gods. Nobody can be certain about the nature of any objective or physical gods, but people can give you valuable insight about the gods that they themselves experience and engage. Look at their religious needs, their divine experiences, and see how their gods and their practices affect their lives. There’s meaningful data there. Trust me on this.

4.) Advocate giving theistic people room find what they need in the context of secularism.

Secularism is vitally important to society. Advocating for science- and reason-based public life has allowed far more people to become and to be themselves than reliance on tradition or dogma. Everyone should embrace secular values. Of this I am certain.

However, secularism needs to get its act together regarding understanding the natural tendencies underlying theism, and understanding theists themselves. There is room for theistic people to exist comfortably within secularism, but at this point neither theists nor secularists believe it! That’s a shame, because in welcoming theists to secularism we have an opportunity to promote meaningful understanding about perspectives and behaviors that have long vexed advocates of reason. Furthermore, in welcoming theists to secularism we can expand secularist influence and promote meaningful understanding about who we as secularists are, and why we do what we do. That outcome sounds far preferable to dismaying theists by giving them the impression that they are defective, and that there’s no point to the self-development that they’ve done within their own paradigm.

I’m asking for secularists to think seriously about theism. Don’t succumb to antitheistic intellectual laziness. Don’t mock theists for doing what comes naturally to them. (Mocking people for espousing harmful dogma is a different story, but harmful dogma isn’t an integral part of all theistic outlooks, and it doesn’t inform the greater part of all theistic drives.) Accept that this god stuff is an integral, meaningful part of some people’s lives, and deal with it a way that rational people strive to approach all manner of life’s complexities:

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”  — Marie Curie

Secular theism has the potential to bridge much of the science-religion gap, by reframing theism as just another natural tendency, by studying it in this light, and by incorporating the “knowns” in theistic perceptions and practices into the scientific understanding of what makes people tick. It also has the potential to do a great amount of good otherwise. So think about it! #SecularTheism

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2 thoughts on “What is secular theism? and how can it help?

  1. Chris Highland

    I think you’re onto something here. You may find further support for your view in the naturalistic philosopher John Burroughs. Here’s a quote from his Time and Change (1915): “The forms and creeds of religion change, but the sentiment of religion—the wonder and reverence and love we feel in the presence of the inscrutable universe—persists.”

    Reply
    1. ardagale Post author

      I love the transcendent writings of naturalists. Regarding that quote specifically, and sorry if I sound like a broken record here, I think it’s important to note some of the more specific threads in religions– the ways that people connect with that wonder. It’s not enough to say that “life is good” when you’re addressing someone who is facing a specific set of challenges; it’s more helpful to assist them or advise them in specific ways. Same with individuals who are looking for that wonder: it’s not enough to tell them that it’s out there when the ways that they’re predisposed to find it aren’t looked kindly upon by their society, or aren’t understood in the first place.

      Reply

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