How to understand God?

I’ve never believed in God. I’ve always wondered why people did. Then one day Jesus appeared to me and I became a believer!

OK, I’m joking.

I still don’t believe in God. At least, not in the sense that I used to think about what God is: a supernatural creature (an actual creature, in whatever shape or form) who is intimately involved in our lives and judges our every thought and action, then damns us eternally, or eternally rewards us when we die.

No. That’s not the kind of God I could ever bring myself to believe in. In fact, I could never believe in any phenomenon that I could not perceive. I would never shove a story down someone’s throat and say “Believe it, or else!” I know there are people who believe in exactly the kind of God I described above and people who would do exactly what I said I wouldn’t. Maybe that kind of existence works for them. It doesn’t work for me. And I think they’re missing the point.

The way I see it – and I would ask of you, the reader, to try and lose any preconceptions about God that you may have while you read this – the idea of God is really just a way for us to deal with our own limitations. None of us knows everything. There are limits to what we can know, what we can do, what we can imagine… even the duration of our life is limited. And even if we were highly intelligent people – the smartest on Earth – there would still be a hard limit on what we could learn during our lifetime and it would still be a small fraction even of all the humanity’s accumulated knowledge, let alone of knowledge of everything there actually is, or of what we could learn in theory, or in practice.

But regardless of this limitation, we still live in this world and as long as we want to continue doing so, we will constantly be faced with the unknown. Even if we settle into a familiar routine and can predict what will happen to us each day, there is still an element of the unknown that might get to us. An unexpected call, unexpected weather, a traffic accident, even that annoying driver ahead of you, or a mosquito in your room at night – and consequences of such unpredictable events – all fall into the domain of the unknown that we need to face each day.

All these things are manifestations of what we don’t know – of what we couldn’t have known and couldn’t factor in any plans we might have made ahead of time. If we were to stop here, there wouldn’t be much to go on. Why call that which we can’t predict anything other than unpredictable? Why call things we don’t know anything other than unknown?

But we don’t stop here. The story goes deeper. It, in fact, has a lot to do with how our brain evolved to deal with an unknown environment – and back when our evolutionary predecessors had much smaller brains, a much larger portion of the environment was unknown. The fact that they survived long enough to produce offspring that was also capable of surviving on its own is – to me – proof enough that these simpler brains, for all their shortcomings, also work. And parts of those simpler brains that work are embedded into the structure of our own brains. That’s simply how evolution works.

The part of us that is conscious and intellectual is actually just the most recent upgrade to the brain structure of our evolutionary predecessors. That means that a lot of the ways that deal with the unknown – with recognizing it and determining how we should react – are subconscious. Just as they predated our conscious brain from an evolutionary perspective, so they react that much faster to the unknown and the potential danger than does our conscious mind.

And they react to more than just danger. They also react to things that might be beneficial to us in some way.

So how does all this factor into the story about God? I want to avoid trying to explain how or why a belief in God is a thing and why it’s so prevalent. For discussions about that, listen to Jordan Peterson’s Biblical lectures. What I want to see is how to make the ideas that have clearly helped so many people – ideas shrouded by the veil of mysticism which to me, and I’m sure to many other atheists out there, seems just plain silly – helpful to us atheists. In other words, I want to try and explain what it means to a believer – on a subconscious level – to say that they believe in God, in atheistic terminology. Now, I can’t make such a translation resonate with all atheists and that is not my goal. I can, however, make it meaningful to me, and hope that others find it meaningful too and can, perhaps, expand on my understanding.

So, what does it mean to a religious person to say they believe in God? First let’s look at what kinds of things are attributed to the idea of God. There are the obvious ones, like omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, etc. It’s difficult for any atheist to wrap their head around these ideas, so let me offer an explanation that is congruent with things I’ve already stated.

Remember I said that we are limited? There are things that we don’t know and there are many things that we will never learn no matter how much we learn in our lifetimes. Well, those things are there nonetheless and when we don’t know about them we can’t even know how they affect our lives, let alone all other things, or how to incorporate or account for them. They can be anything from a sound you can’t identify to a sudden, devastating cataclysm. Heck, maybe even the current position of the planets in the various constellations could affect us – if not directly, then through people who do believe these things.

In its definition, the term God includes both – the things you know and the things you don’t know. It is the reality itself, but not just the external reality, but also your experience of it – the fright you experience when a cat suddenly jumps at you in a dark alley; the sorrow you experience when someone close to you falls ill, or dies; the melancholy you feel when you look at a beautiful sunset…

It is even more than that – it is the effect of your inner experience and how you portray it through the expression of your face, body posture, gesticulation, and the tone of your voice – and how these affect the inner experiences of the people around you. At any one time most of these things are unknown to you and even if you notice them, you may not realize their significance.

What strikes me here is that we could at this time actually define God. God is the totality of reality and each individual’s complete being, and the intricate ways in which they interact. And by “being” here I mean the union of their subjective and objective experiences.

Through an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God, believers have personified these phenomena. And whether that God is an actual person, creature, or some supernatural force is irrelevant. If this were the end of the story, we could still use the word “everything” instead of “God”, even though it would be a bit of a stretch. But why do believers do that? Why personify “everything”?

One of the attributes of God is benevolence. There are, of course, gods that are anything but benevolent, but in monotheistic religions, God is believed to be benevolent (at least to believers). This has a lot to do with what I said earlier about how our brains work. We are able to perceive danger before we are fully consciously aware of it. We are also able to perceive things beneficial to us before we are fully consciously aware of it. It would seem that the supposed benevolence of a supposed god comes through our senses. We notice in certain situations that something is “off” and we are immediately alerted to danger and we thank God we were able to avoid it because we were so alerted by a seemingly higher power – but actually by our more basic senses which work subconsciously.

The surprising thing that gives justification to personification is that it may seem as though we are able to communicate with this “higher power”, this God, this everything. Some people do it by praying. Others do it by some sort of focused meditation. Shamans do it by taking an inner journey to the Akashic Fields through the practice called Shamanic drumming. I’ve tried some of these things and they do work – not as advertised, but they do work – with a little creative interpretation, within the context of one’s life and their experiences. And the fact that they do, in a way, work, is just about enough to justify the attribute of benevolence and the personification of God.

I hope it’s clear here that I don’t mean saying Hail Mary’s over and over will be of much help (although prayers learned by rote act as mantra which has its distinct purpose, not necessarily a good one), but rather the kind of prayer that we often see in movies: one that comes to mind is Home Alone – the kind of prayers that Kevin says in the movies. That kind of prayer is different in that it makes a person think about a problem they find difficult, if not impossible to solve. Thinking (not obsessing) about a problem in this manner opens their minds to solutions. And if through prayer – or any other kind of mental exercise – they attune themselves to the problem, they will “instruct” the deeper layers of their brains to look for things that might bring them closer to the solution.

To a person who doesn’t think in these secular, or evolutionary terms, this seems as if they have asked of God, or the universe, or the spirit world, or whatever other force they imagine exists, for a solution, or for help. As they go from day to day attuning themselves to the problem, the solution, or part of the solution may eventually emerge from the chaos of the unknown and because they are attuned to their problem they will see that solution and use the opportunity. And then they will thank God for sending them the answer to their prayers.

So to have faith in God really means all of these things together – to believe that we are limited in our knowledge and ability, to believe that there are solutions to our problems and they will be provided if we sincerely ask for them even if we don’t see them immediately… Of course, it means more than that and it means something slightly or less slightly different to each person, but this is one of the more practical aspects of the idea.

It is obvious that this idea could easily become an excuse for intellectual laziness. And it does very often. But my intent here is not to provide anyone – least of all myself – with an excuse for laziness, but rather to enlarge my arsenal of tools for finding creative solutions to problems I seem to continually be unable to solve intellectually. There are scenes in the new Sherlock Holmes (with Robert Downey Junior), where Sherlock resolves the mysteries he is presented with by what looks like meditation – and yes, experimentation, study of the Blackwood’s books, etc. He “attunes” himself to the problem. He meditates on it. Some other person might have achieved the same effect through continued prayer, or quiet rumination. A modern forensic team (particularly of the kind we see in forensic shows) would look for clues and would achieve attunement and resolution by constant focus on the facts of the case.

There are solutions to the problems we face which seem to make sense in every way intellectually. And yet when we implement them we realize that we are in the same situation, or worse. We have forgotten to take something into account – something that eludes our perception, but significantly influences the result. We might live in a place surrounded by many opportunities and still find ourselves faced with problems we can’t solve. We might get a job to feed our family, but then lose it, then find another and lose it again, and so on. There is a problem that we are facing that we are not seeing, or are unable to solve. A few minutes a day of quiet pondering – of prayer, or meditation – could make us see the problem and even find a solution eventually.

I’ve heard of our intellectual focus described as a spotlight: it illuminates very brightly a problem that we focus on. We see the problem and we can try and conjure up a solution with our minds. When our minds are unable to conjure a solution, we need a different kind of light – not a spotlight. We need a floodlight. We need to look around the problem and see whether there are things around us that could help us solve the problem. This is when we switch off our spotlight. If we are faced with a locked door and we’ve dropped the keys somewhere, we don’t use the light of a laser to look for them. We use whatever light can sufficiently illuminate the largest area so that perhaps the dropped keys would be as clearly visible in such a light as possible.

There are situations in which even the problem that is stopping us is unknown to us. We notice there is something wrong, but we can’t really put our finger on it. We need to switch off the spotlight and turn on the floodlight. You don’t search a way out of darkness trap using the light of a laser (unless you carry with you a very sophisticated device which can map your surroundings with that laser, but that’s really just another type of the metaphorical floodlight).

This floodlight is what gets switched on when we realize we can’t grapple with the problem and we move away from it and open our minds to where we are at that moment in space and time. As a programmer, it’s often happened to me that I would figure out a solution to some problem or another when I wasn’t doing programming at all. I’d wake up with a solution in my head; or, I would have a great time with my friends and the solution would just hit me out of the blue. Those were the moments when my laser-like focus – my spotlight – was off, and my floodlight was on, however faint and however subconscious.

Through prayer, or meditation, we can increase the likelihood of this happening – on purpose. And we can be facing a problem that is seemingly insurmountable, or one that we even have trouble defining, but if we are consistent in looking for answers, or solutions, we might eventually find them.

Now, I say “might”. The above should be taken with reservation. This is not “The Secret” where we ask of the universe what we want and the universe will provide no matter what – although the two ideas do have similarities. We see in the holy scriptures of any monotheistic religion that God can be quite whimsical, vengeful, and downright evil. But if we keep in mind that God is really a personification of everything that exists – including the subjective experiences of the people around us – then it makes sense. Reality doesn’t go out of its way to reward the good, or punish the evil, or the other way around. Reality just is. We may find that we can seemingly negotiate with it, but ultimately we may be ended by an accident we could never have predicted, or mitigated. It’s in cases like this when we claim our plans and efforts were rendered useless by a higher power. For all intents and purposes, we were punished by the wrath of God and perhaps we will serve as a lesson for future generations of how not to behave, or what not to do.

If someone told me that it is not possible to gain unexpected insight into something, that we are not able to perceive danger except on a purely intellectual level, I’d probably think they are naive. If they told me they refused to believe it because I have no “proof”, I would consider it a childish remark. If they were determined to pound me with witty quips that demonstrate how wrong I was, I’d probably be a bit annoyed, but I suppose I’d also feel sorry for them because it would be obvious that they had never had a similar experience in their lives. Either that, or worse, if they had it they might have been shamed for it and punished enough to disown this part of themselves that is intuitive, inquisitive, curious, spontaneous, or whatnot. It’s quite possible they could be perceived as dangerous by some people since they would be advocating a position that denies an element within us that makes us distinctly human.

That said, I believe people who believe in God feel similarly – to lesser or greater extent – threatened, or challenged. To them, saying there is no God means that as humans we are impotent when faced with a problem to which no immediate solution is apparent and that the only thing to do before such a problem is to perish. To believers, the solution, however, is to pray. To atheists, it’s to think. To meditate. To tell those who believe in God that prayer is ineffective means to them the same thing that saying thinking is ineffective to an atheist. And they are at some level essentially the same thing: both praying for a solution and searching for a solution by thinking about it attunes a person to the problem, making them more likely to see a solution when it is manifest on the border between order and chaos.

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