I am a Skeptotheist.
In a moment of gratuitous irreverence, I once asked a priest, “What’s so sacred about religion, anyway?”
I’ll readily admit that the anger in his eyes did little to dissuade me from expressing my curiosity, which, unfortunately, he likely took to be an attack on his religious convictions. He refused to discuss the matter, of course, and that fact only served to confirm my perception, as self-serving as it was, that he most probably did not have an answer to disarm an overt skeptic like me.
I’ll also readily admit that the priest was right to remain silent. Any answer he offered would have most probably prompted another question, and the cycle would have repeated itself, maybe even viciously, until one of us walked away. Inevitably, the one to walk away would have had to be him.
Despite the non-discussion with the priest, my contention remained firmly rooted that we convince ourselves an ultimate authority exists because we arrogantly claim ultimate authority ourselves in making that pronouncement. A god exists because we say so! Now that is the ultimate definition of “self-serving.”
In my view, there is nothing sacred about religion other than what we claim to be so. Moreover, in claiming the sacredness of religion we are in fact ascribing that very quality to ourselves. I know this is not a popular position to take, and it will surely elicit many criticisms and accusations of blasphemy, but it is fundamentally what I believe, and it is by my beliefs that I define myself.
So, am I an agnostic? No, not at all. Am I am atheist? No, not at all. What am I then? I may be an Agnostheist. According the Urban Dictionary, an agnostheist is “a theist who believes that any particular religion cannot be proven or disproved, and with neither acceptance nor rejection of them, remain neutral to them all.” Maybe. There is still a tinge of the arrogance of ego in claiming agnostheism, namely that we can neither prove nor disprove. Why do we need to contend we can do either?
Spiritual license appears to be necessary, if not imperative, when it comes to capturing the affairs of the great beyond. Actually, to give full expression to my sentiments regarding this matter, and with ego as much in check as possible, I will claim that I am a skeptotheist. It would be more in line with current nomenclature, of course, to claim religious skepticism, but why not be a little eccentric?
Per common definitions of religious skepticism, I question religious authority and am skeptical of all religious beliefs, but am not necessarily anti-religious. To be clear, I’m anti-religion but pro religious instinct. What’s the difference? Religions require that you follow the doctrines of a messenger – their messenger – often quoted by others and invariably misquoted to suit their ulterior motives. The religious instinct propels you to engage in self-discovery of your spirituality – your own perspective of the perennial truths expressed by messengers – and to take ownership of it in the manner in which you live your life.
Let me stipulate right up front that I want to believe in something – I really do – but I don’t know what, thus my skeptotheism. I read a lot about theism, atheism and agnosticism, and it seems to me that while everybody is right to some extent, they are also simultaneously wrong to some other extent. Each of the proponents not only disagree on viewpoint and substance, they probably also disagree on how right or wrong their respective adversaries are. It seems to me that such debates only serve to keep us going around in circles.
I want to believe in a God, and sometimes I even convince myself that I can, usually on Sundays. I don’t mean to be overly facetious, but I try really hard to be a theist, and find the experience trying. Why do I have to subscribe to what other people tell me are the doctrines, as if they have a greater claim on truths that are supposed to be universal? I also try really hard to be an atheist, and find that denying something only serves to reinforce the very thing I’m trying to deny. To claim that God does not exist presupposes the notion that God might exist. If God does not exist, there would be no need to deny His existence. I finally try really hard to be an agnostic, and find that the unknowable remains so only if we do not venture into the mysteries of our soul. If we could not know more than what we already know, we would still be living in caves and grunting obscenities at each other.
I should confess that, if truth be told – I mean the whole truth and nothing but the truth – I like to believe in a God who cares about me. Like the religious fanatics of the world, it is indeed gratifying to place myself at the center of a universe I did not create, and to have an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity focus His divine attention on me. But – and here is my problem – once my ego is gratified in this way, I find that my soul still screams for something more.
What is that something more? I don’t know, and therefore my skeptotheism.
At the risk of sounding ridiculously facetious, or perhaps even deeply cynical, I discovered that the religion into which I was born is itself dying. Mainly from irrelevance, as it turns out. And this, to a large measure, gave rise to my irreverence.
From a young age, when I was listening to a priest deliver his sermon, I would wonder, “Does he really believe in what he’s saying?” Religion already sounded out of touch with my curiosity. How could a man, who recites passages from a book written thousands of years ago and presumed to be sacred, purport to tell me how to live my life in the here and now, when he has no idea what my here and now is like because he is not partaking of it in any way? I didn’t get it then. I still don’t get it now.
Every once in a while, however, I would meet a priest who seemed to understand more about human nature than about “the book.” Or at least he seemed to relate more from a standpoint of human nature than “the book.”
Father O’Sullivan, our high school chaplain, was one such priest. He didn’t wear the prototypical black priest’s robe. Instead, he dressed in a pin-stripped, dark blue suit, with a white shirt and red tie. He looked like a walking French flag, even though he was Irish, but no matter his appearance or his heritage, he spoke of God as if He was a friend. God was a dude! That kind of relationship with a deity made a lot of sense to me, and it hit a chord deep inside that still resonates in the chambers of my search.
Then, a miracle happened. Father O’Sullivan met Miss McGuire, a math teacher at the same high school. That’s when I learned that a priest will sometimes choose to disrobe. Or, perhaps, to be disrobed. Whichever. The point is, it seemed to me that Father O’Sullivan found a more enticing heaven in the arms of Miss McGuire than in the verses of the bible. Human nature trumped sacred texts. That also made a lot of sense to me.
God-the-dude – the friendly version that Father O’Sullivan talked about – well, it seemed to me that even He rejoiced that this latter-day Adam and Eve found love in their Garden of Eden. To see that man and woman so in love with each other and so happy together almost made any religious contentions about commandments and virtues a laughable matter.
And so, as I munched on an apple one lunchtime, unaware of mythical snakes that could talk, I smiled at the thought that even God was into sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Now that was a cool religion!
It’s been many years now since I first disengaged with religion, and having been labelled a contrarian – even though I wholeheartedly disagree with that assessment – I finally have come to the realization that I do not fit into any preconceived molds when it comes to spiritual questions or religious doctrines.
I’ll confess that at first this new awareness left me somewhat disconcerted, because everyone likes to belong to something or to someone, and I’m no aberrant exception to that basic instinct of human nature. Where do I belong? To whom do I belong? The questions still haunt me to this day, often as riddles during the waking hours, and sometimes as confusing dreams in my sleep. The quest is certainly begging for an answer. Almost any answer. Almost, but not quite.
It gets even more convoluted. As if not existentially angst-ridden enough, I exacerbate my exploratory quest with further wonderings. What is my purpose? Why am I here? How can I begin to understand the mystery? To underscore this existential angst, I once wrote this note to myself: “By the power of discord, I proclaim myself dysfunctional.”
Now, how can one be gloriously in harmony with his own human discord? It turns out to be quite easy, actually, given that we all define our own heaven and our own hell by who we are and what we do.
Let’s recognize that spirituality, religion and human nature have concerned humans since the dawn of civilization, when we first noticed a spark of consciousness in ourselves, and they will likely concern us until the sunset of our civilization, that point at which we will realize that we have become utterly impotent to reverse the conditions we have arrogantly created that are leading to our own inevitable extinction.
I believe that it is the awareness of our downright impotence in the face of uncontrollable conditions that prompts the religious instinct, likely as a panic response, and it will be the epitome of irony that we will finally begin to understand our fragile relationship to the immensity of the universe when that relationship nears an end. In the meantime we believe ourselves to be indestructible. Is it any surprise, then, that we created a God-image that is omnipresent? Deep down, we delude ourselves that we are as well.
But we are likely not eternal as a species, just as we are not eternal as individual beings. We will all die eventually, some naturally, some accidentally. Our existence as humans may often feel as if it is held together by a thin thread, especially when we discover how feeble it is, and our existence as a species may likewise be quite tenuous. The universe existed prior to our arrival on the scene and will surely exist beyond our presence, almost as if we are an accidental wart on the face of creation. Regardless, we will most probably continue to consider ourselves potent enough to still master our nature and the universe. Is it any surprise, then, that we created a God-image that is omnipotent? Deep down, we delude ourselves that we are as well.
As a species we’re either too stupid to understand the damage we are doing to ourselves with many of our beliefs and ensuing actions, or we’re too arrogant to care enough to change our ways. In either case, we’re doomed to break the chain of evolution at our weakest link – our belief that we are separate and superior to our circumstances, and that we know better. Indeed, we convince ourselves that we know better than a mysterious universe that has created us. Is it any surprise, then, that we created a God-image that is omniscient? Deep down, we delude ourselves that we are as well.
It shouldn’t be too difficult a concept to understand that we seek to master that which we fear may master us. Often, the only way to achieve this mastery, to the satisfaction of our ego, is to weave myths about ourselves, or about supreme beings to whom we can associate ourselves as the preferred subjects. Whether the stories we tell ourselves in these regards are true or fictitious is almost irrelevant, especially when the effect is so intoxicating and gratifying.
My attitude is antithetical to religious fervour, but it’s not necessarily anti-theistic per se. My irreverence stops a tad short of claiming that nothing at all is good about theism. A belief in a God that is an idealized representation of what we could become as a species – if we were to survive and enlighten ourselves enough to raise our consciousness to a level of sacredness – is a good thing, as long as we understand and accept that such a God might only be a fabricated character in the story of our lives. When the character of a story begins to rule over the author of the story, we enter into problematic areas of the human psyche where our dark side resides.
The dark night of the soul holds many surprises. Where there is a God, there is also a Devil – the proverbial two sides of the same coin – and we are caught in the middle. Between heaven and hell there are humans, defining both ends of that spectrum by how we live and what we do. We no more ascend to a paradise by divine intervention or descend to an inferno by demonic condemnation than we wake up in the morning with heaven in our eyes or go to sleep at night with hell on our breath. Are we the ones flipping the God-Devil coin to make heads or tails of the universe, or are we contriving a means of being flippant?
Now, that being said, let’s admit the religious instinct is pervasive, and thus we need to take it into account. But is religion really necessary? What is beyond religion? In other words, if not religion, what else is there?
It’s my contention that in order to get past religion, we may need to embrace the idea of gods as a reflection of our ability to idealize ourselves – that is, to create a concept of a supreme being to which we aspire. Let us recognize that we “divine” such a supreme being to limitlessly augment our strengths and eternally diminish our weaknesses.
The problem with “god-making” occurs when we forget our role in creating the divine-figure, and begin to believe that the god created us. The consciousness-raising we require is not to ascend to the heavens – where we postulate that such a god resides – but to integrate that heaven into our life on earth. There is no god other than the one we create, albeit we must also simultaneously contend with the notion that we exist from an irreducible first cause that is yet not fully known, referred to as “God.”
This, then, is a blend of theism, atheism and agnosticism. It serves no useful purpose to denounce theism in the name of atheism, as if the truth resides exclusively in one realm. And it serves no useful purpose to denounce theism and atheism in the name of agnosticism, as if to profess that not knowing is a satisfactory condition that can lead us to greater consciousness. Our saving grace may be found in the un-attachment to any one philosophical standpoint, thus honoring our freedom to re-create ourselves in the image of our highest consciousness, as evolutionary as that consciousness may be.
Here is what I consider the most pertinent question on the usefulness or relevance of religion: If we were to land on the planet earth at this time in our evolutionary path, not knowing anything about our history as a species, would we find the need to create a god to explain our existence here?
With a little friendly analysis, our answer to that question will most likely reveal the presuppositions that are embedded in our psyche. We are typically unaware of such presuppositions given that they operate subconsciously, but they are nonetheless powerful and can govern the way we view the world and the sense we make of it.
It is a fairly well known contention in psychological circles that your subconscious beliefs predicate in large measure your perceptions of the world. Albert Einstein once asked, “Is the world a friendly place?” Your perceptions will lead you to answer in one of three ways: Yes; No; I don’t know. These are the same three answers that correspond to theism, atheism, and agnosticism, respectively. Is this purely a coincidence? Probably not.
The bottom line with religion is actually quite simple. If you want to believe there is a god who oversees your life – if you need to believe in an intervening god – then chances are that you will find the evidence to support your claim. If you want to believe there is no god at all – nothing that caused existence or that oversees it – then chances are that you will also discover the evidence to support your claim. If you don’t want to believe anything at all either way, or if you need to believe that the question and answer are beyond our scope as human beings, then chances are that you as well will uncover the evidence to support your claim.
Who is right? Who is wrong? Claiming that only one of theism, atheism or agnosticism is right, and that therefore the other two are wrong, leads to endless debates that only serve to better entrench each proponent’s respective position. Claiming that each is right to some degree and that each is wrong to some other degree serves only to create a sense of tolerance in which we become blind, deaf and dumb to the downside of extreme thoughts and fundamentalist beliefs.
The most difficult aspect of being human is to divorce ourselves from the need to be right or wrong. The consciousness-raising we seek is to be able to accept what is simply by virtue of what it is, which correspondingly implies an acceptance of what is not. The known and the unknown are always in balance, with our capacity to master the prior and embrace the latter as the driver of our evolution.
The religious instinct is not necessarily about god. It is about us and our desire to feel at home in our own existence. And, in my view, the most appropriate response to the religious instinct is not religion per se, but a spiritual awakening to our life calling and to the sacred consciousness of the lifework we fulfill. When we understand this fully and completely, and when we know this beyond any doubts we may artificially create, then we will likely not have any need to make a god in the image of our own divinity.
Now, if the religious instinct is not necessarily about god, then what is it about? Can it be a coping mechanism of some sort, an evolutionary artifact that provides us with a natural advantage to survive our own existence?
Let’s look at it this way. Much of the literature on atheism alludes to the notion that religion – a belief in God – originates from our fear of the unknown, particularly death. Whether such a notion is true or not is the subject of extensive debate, all proponents putting forth their best arguments to maximize their position. As with many things in life, both sides of that issue probably contain elements of truth and elements of falsity that lead or mislead respectively.
One fact appeared incontrovertible to me recently when I attended a wake for a deceased relative – people go to a place of spiritual alertness in moments of obvious human frailty. The realization that death is inevitable is itself inevitable, and with such reckoning we instinctively or intuitively appeal to a higher power. But, in witnessing the mourning of family, I began to wonder if a belief in a God (regardless of God’s actual existence or not) is born from our strength instead of our weakness.
A particular gaze from my mother to my father (whose sister was the deceased) led me to the immediate sensation best described as follows: “I saw God in her eyes.” It wasn’t a vision per se; it wasn’t a sound; it wasn’t even a feeling. It was simply a knowing that I was in the presence of something beyond our humanness, something that wasn’t necessarily born from the unreachable depths of our humanity, but something that passed through us from somewhere else, somewhere more primordial, more in touch with our basic origin.
Perhaps this knowing on my part was a fabrication of my own need to cope with the vortex of emotions that surrounded me. A wake and impending funeral are fertile grounds for raw emotions and pre-rational thoughts, rendering us vulnerable and possibly susceptible to improvable contentions.
Or is the opposite just as likely? Do such experiences of duress open a window to another world where our being is immaterial? Or might we be subject to both at the same time?
Pragmatically speaking, a belief in God works for us in some contexts. Spiritually speaking, a belief in God may not be necessary in other contexts. Religiously speaking, a belief in God is mandatory and sufficient. When someone dies, we almost automatically want confirmation of life, and so we believe in a source of eternity. Such a belief can simultaneously be pragmatic, spiritual and religious.
As I once wrote to a friend whose father had just passed away, “When the body is gone, what remains is the love, and the memories that we choose to harbor in our heart and soul... and that is how a loved one passes from one presence into another... from being with us in the world to being inside us in our world.”
It is possible under some conditions, as paradoxical as it may sound, to not necessarily believe in a God and yet “see God in her eyes.” The truth or untruth of such a belief is irrelevant in such a context. The only thing that matters is that a God appears to us in synchronicity with our greatest needs. This phenomenon is worthy of our respect, if not our worship, regardless of whether we build a religion around it or not. Since we are belief-makers, we may as well believe in our own creations when it is to our advantage to do so.
Then again, maybe it’s a reflection of how perplexed we are with our own existence that we create myths and religions to appease us. It comforts us to believe that a benevolent God has seen it good and just to create humans in His image. We are unwilling or unable to contend with the notion that we exist in a vibrant void that gave birth to us as another example of evolutionary aliveness.
But even the argument for God, or for intelligent design, is flawed. All we need to do to arrive at this inevitable conclusion is consider the end result, namely – us. The best we can say is that perhaps there is an intelligent intention, otherwise, if humans are the epitome of creation, based on some of our atrocities either the design or the designer is flawed.
How convenient, then, some would say, that both the argument for God and against God are insufficient. Are we forever to be caught in the inescapable dilemma that we can’t fabricate a plausible enough explanation for the mystery of our existence, yet we can’t either plausibly unexplain the very evident fact that here we are?
Richard Dawkins wrote, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” It is my contention that one of the truly bad effects of non-religion is the exact same thing. In other words, both a belief that God exists and is responsible for everything, and the counter-belief that there is no God and we are a random occurrence in a vastly uncaring universe, are self-serving in the sense that they arrest the quest for deeper and broader understanding.
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” The truth of our existence is not the purview of only one domain or the other, but is a relative matter that pervades all manners of investigation, study and contemplation. The very perplexity of our existence is the doorway to our admission that we are unknowing in the face of the greater mysteries of the universe, perhaps eternally so because of our nature, but this need not be the end of our quest for understanding, nor need it be our license to simply fabricate the most self-serving convenient paradigm.
Alan Watts stipulates in The Tao of Philosophy, “Just as an apple tree apples, the earth peoples, and thus we are not so much born into this world as grown out of it.” To paraphrase, we are grown out of the blossoming of the universe. Why is this not miracle enough? Why do we need to personify the mystery, in the name of a God, according to the insecurities of our psyche?
When we mature enough to acknowledge, without any sentiments of belittling ourselves, that we are simultaneously significant and insignificant in the universal scheme of things, we will begin to embrace the full promise of who we are and what we are capable of doing. Perhaps William James’ suggestion is most apt – that religion is a “feeling of being at home in the Universe.”
Religion does not have to be only about God. Spirituality does not have to be only about non-God. It may be time that we stop treating ourselves as strangers in our own home, with a perennial quest to figure out why we are here, and start accepting that we are at home in a universe that gave birth to us, with an abundant desire to live fully and completely in harmony with our own nature. There must be a truer source of divinity than our fabricated religions if we are to evolve beyond our humanness.
In the interplay between what binds us and what divides us, there must be an essence that gives rise to all the possibilities of our beliefs and our behaviors. Perhaps we haven’t searched deep enough, or wide enough, or high enough, into the spirit-mind to understand the full realm of our dimensionless makeup. We may never be able to find a complete answer to why we are here or how we came to be, but that fact is still not sufficient cause to satisfy ourselves with partial answers.
As has been stated by others more knowledgeable about these matters than I am, and I paraphrase, “Religions start with the answer and then postulate only the questions that correspond to it.” It is a phenomenon we can now understand as reverse-engineering – “reinterpreting” historical events to fit a preconceived paradigm. Where is the truth in such a scenario?
Particularly misleading is the notion that religions provide us with complete answers, as if the purview of truth rests with a chosen few who pretend to have privileged access to a divine source. It’s interesting to note that many in society have reinterpreted that “purview of truth” to be a source of on-going lies that serve an ulterior purpose significantly removed from the original intent of religion – to bind ourselves to the universe in meaningful ways.
What would it be like to simply ask questions born of unconstrained curiosity and allow any and all possible answers to be heard? What would it be like to rely on our internally driven “guidance of divinity” instead of externally powered dogma and doctrines? Might we find a more substantial clue to the “truer source,” if not also a more relevant gospel to our needs, with such openness of spirit-mind?
As I have stated elsewhere, “God may not be an answer; God may be a question.” What is the essence of “why”? What is the essence of “why not”? The interplay between the two gives rise to a continuum of wonder – the so-called religious instinct – in which we may find deeper appreciation of the miracle of our humanness.
And still, the continuum begs another question – What is the truer source of that curiosity?
Thus the cycle repeats itself. Is this not a form of divinity? Partial answers give rise to more questions. Questions spawn more partial answers. If humans are an answer to a divine query, perhaps that divinity is an answer to a human query. And in between, while encompassing both, may be a path to a truer source. My bequest to you, then, is to be the quest.
The realm of the unknown will always exist, and will probably always prompt a leap of faith on our part. We are a conscious species who seeks greater knowledge of ourselves and the universe, and this virtue is laudable, but in many ways we are also unconscious to the demands of our ego for power over ourselves and the universe, and this vice is lamentable. In such a duality of our inherent character is found an abyss that can engulf us mercilessly in our weaknesses.
At the dawn of our species we knew very little about ourselves and the world around us in a scientific sense, and thus we made up myths and religions to compensate for our lack of hard information. The more we learned and the more knowledge we accumulated, the more we also challenged our own myths and religions, and began to relegate them to lesser and lesser dominance in our lives and our society.
Although as a civilization we have now reached the stage at which the extent of our knowledge cannot be seized by one individual – the repository of our scientific information requires many groups of people, each dedicated to their own area of specialty – we will likely never fully comprehend ourselves and the universe. The realms of existence are simply too vast, and any attempt at understanding must necessarily originate from a level of consciousness that is at least one order of magnitude above and beyond the level of existence we seek to comprehend.
We are thus perpetually destined to accept the element of the unknown, from which is born our sense of credence in a power or an authority above and beyond us. It’s only too rational, then, and wholly paradoxical, that we postulate faith to help us manage the element of unknown. Whereas a sense of awe might lead us to revere the unknown, perhaps even worship it as a source of evolutionary potential, our base need to master ourselves and our world, for fear of being mastered by it, leads us to assign supremacy to our faith in a subconscious attempt (sometimes not so subconscious) to make ourselves supreme.
Since we arrogantly claim to be the only species awake to our own awareness, we want to ensure to our own satisfaction that we are not mere somnambulists in the progressive history of existence. If it ever comes to pass that we are consciously comfortable with the interplay between what we know and what we don’t know, furthermore understanding that it is all quantifiably relative to our evolutionary process, then we might begin to accept that a more divine sense of our oneness can be found in the very human dualities we so diligently seek to eliminate. Perhaps, instead of insisting on worshipping something or some being whose existence can neither be proved nor disproved conclusively, we might wisely be able to worship the unknown without any need to personify it.
Isn’t it curious that, given the obviousness of our existence, we simultaneously postulate the existence of a supreme being, as if our life is not a sufficient miracle in and of itself? Why must we assign the credit, or the blame, elsewhere?
The great mystery of life will always be a great mystery. It is our most noble virtue to accord ourselves with this fact. Ironically, our perplexity with our discomfort regarding the unknown may itself be an integral part of the great mystery. We cannot escape our nature; we can only engage in it fully and completely.
As I have said elsewhere, “It’s by leaving religion behind me that I found God before me. And it’s by letting go of God that I finally embraced myself in my own presence.” Many will say that such claims are blasphemous, and even anti-religious, but, be that as it may, my statements are intended to convey that by deconstructing dogma and doctrines we are able to construct a “philosophy of being human” devoid of idealized references to divine entities.
Only when we define ourselves in terms that are self-referenced will we fully come into the power that is our birthright, and this because of the miracle of existence in and of itself, without any need for an original cause above and beyond it. Such beliefs are not categorically atheistic or agnostic. They are simply what they are and nothing other. Ironically, or perhaps paradoxically, if there is an all-loving God that still exists, such a deity would not seek thanks or recognition for the gift of life. Such a deity would surely know that the gift is its own thanks.
An “all-loving” act – otherwise described as unconditional love – does not have any requirements. When you give a gift to someone, simply and purely for the giving, you are loving unconditionally and the thought does not cross your mind that you ought to be thanked, even less worshipped. Do we expect our children to establish a religion in our name because we gave birth to them from an act of love? Of course not. All we want is that they grow up happy and healthy, and that they enjoy their lives to the fullest. Such living to the most complete of their wishes and ambitions is thanks enough for us.
Why, then, do we feel a need to create religions to explain our existence in ways that can never be proved or disproved? We are born of the earth, by the earth, and for the earth. That is our origin, that is our cause, and that is our reason. Anything else, mythological or mystical, has to be considered a figment of our imagination, simultaneously the questions that set us free from answers that bind us. The choice is ours, as per our free will. Whether God-given or Devil-taken, we are simultaneously the re-linkers and re-linked. Between the heaven and hell of our imagination, we have the opportunity to create the world of our beliefs on earth. Such is the only religion that might survive our own skepticism.
Copyright © 2017, Joseph Civitella.