Getting Over God

I no longer believe in God. But before you automatically write me off as a nihilistic atheist, let me explain. When I say I no longer believe in God, I do not mean that I do not believe in a first cause or a principle of ultimate reality or that I think for a minute that what we understand as material reality today is all there is to know. What I do mean is that I no longer believe in that personage called God which we have come to know through the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Koran and who, as Jack Miles clearly demonstrated in his Biography of God, is really a very unsavory character. I do not confuse this cruel tyrant with ultimate reality, dear reader, nor should you. As to ultimate reality, I confess I know nothing — except I know it isn’t God.

I am driven crazy by inconsistencies — not the foolish kinds, I hope, which are reputed to be the hobgoblin of small minds, but the really big ones: the inconsistency of a nation which claims to be peace-loving but which drops bombs on innocent civilians all over the world; the inconsistency of a government which calls itself a democracy, but which is governed by the dollar, not the voter; the inconsistency of a political system which claims to support freedom, but which funds tyranny whenever economically or politically expedient; the inconsistency of a society which speaks out against racism and sexism, but which is racist and sexist to its core; the inconsistency of a country which owes its greatness to the richness of the land upon which it was founded, but which minute by minute is poisoning the earth and its waters and air– and finally and most importantly for me, the inconsistency of a religion which preaches love and humility, but whose actions support the power structure at the expense of, and on the backs of, the less powerful.

In my mid forties, divorced, a single mother, an employee in corporate America, I was belatedly jolted awake with the realization that others, primarily the male authority figures in my life, acted according to a different set of rules than I,a woman, did — and believed they were doing the right — and expected — thing. However, if I had behaved as they did, clearly I would be doing the wrong thing. I had had, years earlier, some glimmer of a different outlook on life, i.e., different from what I had been taught. A friend’s Harvard student handbook proclaimed that “Rules were made to be broken,” broken, it appeared, by Harvard men, to whom the rules I was being asked to live by did not even seem to apply. Years later, I seemed to hear a reference to that sentiment in a political speech. Bill Clinton described those of us in our society who consistently got the short end of the stick as “those who worked hard and played by the rules.” Protestations to the contrary, wasn’t this an unintentional acknowledgement that, although our society demanded hard work and obedience to authority, it didn’t value it very highly. And although it publicly excoriated breaking the rules and regularly jailed the less powerful for rule breaking, didn’t it reward the rich and powerful for doing just that? Was working hard and obeying authority a sure way of being left behind rather than getting ahead? What was going on? More inconsistency to deal with!

In the process of trying to harmonize all this cognitive dissonance, I have come to understand that I was looking at this all wrong. There is no inconsistency — merely two separate value systems — one for the rich and powerful, which is reflected in their actions, and one for the rest of us — which is reflected in their words. These words serve as window dressing for them, but are meant to be taken seriously by us. The models for these two value systems are to be found in the two most powerful images of Protestant Christianity: God the Father, who serves as a model for all those kings and presidents, warriors and generals, business tycoons and CEO’s — who believe that taking dominion over the earth and all its inhabitants is their birthright and moral duty; and Jesus Christ, the model for the rest of us, whose self-sacrificial example enables the dominated to feel good about ourselves as we are being crucified and generally screwed over for the sake of the rich and powerful.

It is the genius of the Christian faith to provide models for both the Chief and the Indians — something both Judaism and Islam, the other two Abrahamic religions, failed to do. It is also the genius of the Christian faith to conflate the relationship between God and his people and God and his Son in a single model for the relationship between the powerful and the powerless: on the one hand there is a covenant which promises that the elites will take care of the working poor as long as the poor continue to respect their authority and to work on their behalf. On the other hand, when things don’t work out so well for the poor, providing Christ as the way the truth and the life ensures that the downtrodden will see their self-sacrifice as a mark of moral superiority, making suffering easier to bear and promoting an attitude of both love and forgiveness toward those in authority rather than resentment and rebellion, thereby ensuring social tranquility when the going gets tough. It is the basic model for the relationship between a leader and his people, pope and church, general and soldiers, management and labor, teacher and students, husband and wife. It is also, as I have mentioned, sheer genius.

But why do we follow these models and where do they come from? Where do they get their power? How is it that they are so numinous? What does it mean to believe in God or his Son Jesus Christ? Is it because they really exist, somewhere… out there? Or is their existence confined to this earthly plane, with their primary function being to shape our cultural consciousness and provide us with a cultural value system, ensuring that the social mechanism runs relatively smoothly? I would argue for the latter. And, I would argue, based on the various crises that are threatening our survival, that these value laden models have outlived their usefulness.

According to Christian tradition, humans may be of the earth, but we are made in the image of our Father, who lives in Heaven. It is the religious and cultural party line that our animal nature is concerned with satisfying the less than noble appetites of the body, while our human nature, which is made in the image of God, is concerned with the requirements of eternal life. According to this line of thought, the drive to power that characterizes our society in its government, business, and religious dealings, arises from our base animal nature. It is, therefore, the stated goal of religion to keep this unbridled “animal” nature in check.

However, if one looks carefully at the image of God the Father as He appears in the Bible — one finds a personality suspiciously similar to all those power hungry, greedy, politicians and business leaders we have been taught to despise — but whom we often, paradoxically, admire. He is full of willful and capricious violence against all who are disloyal to him — as well as against some who are loyal. He condones violence against women. And, he has an insatiable lust for power. He demands absolute, unquestioning, obedience to his absolute authority. The transcendent God is as obsessed with power as any tyrant we can name, and the assertion of this power is often hazardous to the health of his children. Take for example his treatment of his only begotten son. What kind of monster would require that his son go through the agony of crucifixion? Yet this god is characterized as a god of love.

I have come to believe, therefore, that the violence, greed, and hunger for power which drives our society is not an expression of our animal nature as the church ingenuously claims (do you know any animals which behave as badly as we do — take more than they need, foul their nests, kill for the sake of killing?), but rather an expression of our cultural — more specifically, our religious — nature, which perforce replaced our “animal nature” when we evolved into human beings. Cultural values in humans take the place of animal instincts in non-human animals, giving us the freedom and tools to adapt to many different social and natural environments.

Although both human and non-human animals have instinctive appetites for those things which we need to survive (air, water, food, sex, warmth, etc.), non-human animals have detailed intrinsic survival programs which enable them to meet these needs, programs which for example not only tell them what to eat, but where it lives or grows, and what it takes to bring home the bacon. These needs coupled with the programs that enable them to meet these needs are collectively understood as the survival instinct. Human animals, however, have no such intrinsic programs for survival — all we have are the survival needs. How we satisfy these needs is culture specific, with our survival programs provided through our cultural institutions. Our cultural information is organized around our culture’s dominant religious symbol — in our case God the Father, and in an ancillary role, God the Son. Modeling ourselves on God the Father or God the Son — or in some cases both, depending on the circumstances — is Christendom’s version of the survival instinct. Belief in God and the religion that has grown up around this dominant symbol is our survival strategy. And, lest we forget him, there is also Satan, the archetype of the enemy — whatever competes with or is a threat to God — and, therefore, all that is evil, which acts as a unifying symbol, when all else fails.

Like the instincts of our furry, feathered, and finny friends, images of God (we are made in the image of God) are imprinted on every member of society at every turn through all our cultural and social institutions from the family and the schoolroom to the nation and the church. Depending on our position in the power structure, we are taught either to imitate this image or worship it. The paterfamilias and the father of our country, principals and store managers, CEOs and generals, coaches and quarterbacks, all are programmed to demonstrate this God-like behavior. Those of us who are not made in the image of God the Father (the worker bees, women and people of color, for example) get the Son as a consolation prize — the humble carpenter of Galilee who gave unquestioning obedience to God, his Father. This is why God and Christ are so numinous to us. Belief in them does not lead to some shadowy never never land of eternal life as advertised, but to Life itself — life where it matters, here on earth. At some point in our early history, we all collectively decided that belief in this image and patterning our society on this image was the key to our survival. As to Satan, well our fear of him — whatever we perceive as a threat to our survival — is what drives us to worship God.

Over the last 10,000 years or so, we have believed in those who display the qualities of the alpha male, because, in a dualistic world of us and them, we believed he, the leader of us and the key to our survival, could save us from him — the leader of them and the source of death and destruction. We believed our survival depended on finding the biggest, baddest actor in the neighborhood and trading our loyalty and labor for his protection — from the other bad actor in the vicinity. We accordingly abstracted those alpha male qualities and constellated them around a cultural archetype which we call God. This survival model, in turn, bestowed numinosity on all those who modeled themselves on him. This survival model, warts and all, has worked as an organizing principle for the outstanding success of the colonizing, exploitative, world -dominating Western culture, the most outstanding proof of which is the super power status of the United States which demonstrates in spades God’s qualities of omnipotence (military power), omniscience (military intelligence and science), omnipresence (the capitalistic global economy), and transcendence (technologies which enable us to dominate nature and leave the earth).

Given population and environmental crises, the widening gap between rich and poor, and terrorism, the question for all of us at the beginning of the 21st century is �Does the model still work? Is it, with all its shortcomings, still the most effective model for survival?� I believe that the answer is no. The planet is too small and weapons of mass destruction too destructive to accommodate this us/them dichotomy. I can no longer believe — even if I wanted to. In my experience, the powerful can no longer be trusted to fulfill their end of the bargain. The more I give, the more they take. As the dangers of environmental degradation and the events of September 11 proved, the economic wealth and military might which we had depended on to ensure our safety as citizens of the most powerful country in the world, can no longer get the job done — and have become the most dangerous threat of all to all of us. The global, social, and political environments have changed so drastically that continuing to believe in the old model for survival is suicidal. Unless we change our ways, the exploited earth and earth’s exploited inhabitants will take their revenge.

The good news, however, is that, when our lives depend on it, we are capable of change. The violence and greed and exploitative behaviors, which appear to be the dominant characteristics of our culture and which are leading us down the path of self-destruction, are not hardwired in our animal nature as the church — and the political/Christian right — maintains, but are based on a cultural construct arising from our past understanding of what we have needed to survive as symbolized by God. In my own life, when I reached the point that I realized that obedience to God — and all those who think they are God — operated against my survival and the survival of my children, God’s numinosity — and the numinosity of all authority figures — vanished. For me, the imperial God in all his forms is no longer the way the truth and the life, but the path to hell on earth. I have no interest in contributing and subsuming my life energies to forward the purposes of his representatives on earth — the greedy power mad leaders of church, state, and industry.

The bad news is de- and re-constructing culture involves nothing more or less than a major shift in cultural consciousness. Understanding the process of the evolution of consciousness may help get us through the tough times ahead when the “center will not hold” — when the gravitational force of our ruling archetype which has kept us grounded for millennia loses its power and we all seem to fly off in different directions. Some, the conservative, right wingers among us, will hold on to the bitter end, truly believing that their very lives depend on preserving the old order, which is only natural since the ranks of the right wing are filled with the rich and powerful who undoubtedly will suffer a loss in status. Others of us will welcome change. But throughout the coming chaos, we must never lose hope: for, if we can say nothing else about human nature, it is the nature of nature to survive — even when survival means getting over God.

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