The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Religion and Deity

June 21st, 2011 · No Comments · culture, metaphysics

I posted a link to my Facebook page, with a snarky heading and comment, and this drew some attention. Particularly, it drew me into a brief discussion with my friend, Litch. The link in question was to an essay about what Atheists get wrong about religion.

I said: “This essay clearly breaks out the fundamental issue I have with modern, popular that conflates Christianity with all religion and the Judeo-Christian deity as the entirety of global .” I backed this up with a comment, reading: ” Most atheists I’ve talked to are really opposed to Christianity and Christian theology, without any recognition or understanding of the varieties of religious experience. Atheism in America is less about theology than it is a political or philosophical choice to oppose the dominiant form of religious expression.

Litch comments: “I’m pretty sure #4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God, is true. All his examples are very edge case, I mean Jains have gods in drag, most buddhists are theists, and poke at confucians long enough and you get to the emperor is god in classic confucianism or the 3 immortals in more modern versions.”

Abruptly, I return with a reply that was not as well thought out as I would have liked. I said, “Two problems: (A) The term “supernatural God” implies a Judeo-Christian theological stance. The idea of what a deity is and where you find it is far more varied than this allows. Personally, I don’t look for a J-C style All-God, because I think that the idea is theologically and philosophically invalid. I have no need for ‘supernatural’ gods. However, I still see natural gods in the sun and the earth, oceans and forests, in groups of people and in the lay of the land. Deity is simply how we humans emotionally interact with non-human elements of the world around us. (B) The whole point of Buddhism is that we humans achieve what we do through our own actions. There are deistic Buddhists, but that’s because Buddhism is a system that overlays cleanly over nearly any faith, because it has no gods built in. I know quite a few atheist Buddhists.”

To which, Litch said: “I suspect if you ask most atheist buddhists they’d describe their beliefs as a ‘philosophy’ rather than a ‘religion’ and if you follow up any belief structure someone describes as a religion you’ll find a god hiding under one of the rocks. But that quickly gets into a pointless exercise of dualing definitions.”

“The question of the ‘supernatural’ seems to have a bit more meat on it but it also gets definitional, is the supernatual just that which is unexplained by science or that which is a priori inexplicable,” he said.

I replied: “Going back over these comments, I realize I missed an important point. You argue that a god must be at the root of any religion. My research shows me that religion is a process and a complex of human (mostly emotive) experiences. Fundamentally, religion requires no deity of any sort: one can be religious about ancestors, movie stars, sports heroes, or poets. Patriotism is a religion of nationality. Boosterism is a kind of social religion. Deity is a common and convenient mechanism for interacting with things that don’t have faces or hands, but it is a later development, not the core of religion.”

It occurs to me later, that I had a great example. Time is a religion. Every supplicant who questions the time of day can perform a brief prayer of observance to any nearby watch or clock and have their question answered with such a precision as to completely resolve the issue without doubt. The clock is not Time: if the clock breaks, time will go on, but the supplicant must procure another oracle of Time.

According to modern Science, time is a fundamental axis of the universe, and one with a single direction of travel. It is not a force or a line or even a point. Time is everywhere for all things simultaneously.

We are thinking creatures that pride ourselves in being able to compensate for time. We schedule and predict and Gantt chart our lives for many years into our respective futures. How we spend our days, our years, our summers — are questions all intimately familiar to all of us because we are always making room for time.

Is Time a God? We shout at Time, we negotiate with Time: given the degree to which our lives and behaviors are bound by time, Time seems to be quite the sacred element in our lives: it is part of everything, yet undying and supernatural. In Latin, they would say: Tempus fugit, and momento mori: “time flies” and “remember death”. Does an obsessive concern and a handful of aphorisms rise to the level of “mythology”: does it make Time a deity?

The Early Romans would have had no trouble equating Time with deity, with building altars and performing ritual at specific times of day. They used the Sun, the Moon, and the stars to mark the passage of time and conscientiously kept a complex calendar of sacred ritual days.

People today can’t think of Time as a God, because the dominant culture is unable to look beyond the Graeco-Catholic idea of God as only being something you can’t see or understand. We understand Time quite well, and have been tracking and predicting it with great regularity for thousands of years. We just don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is.

I’m not aware of any major cult site for a god who was worshiped as Time; all the same, I know that many cultures have chosen to worship Time in their own way. I’d expect that very few Americans would cop to worshiping Time, but would instead cloak their ritual in the garb of Responsibility or Duty. The idea that reading a clock is a religious activity probably wouldn’t make sense to most Americans, nor would they comprehend Time as a god. Instead of heeding the Sun, now we ignore the heavens, and use clocks and calendars instead. We even legislate away inconvenient sunsets. If Time is a god, we certainly no longer respect or observe Time as such. And yet we continue to depend on it.

So do we define Time as a god? Is attention to time, the worship of it? How do we distinguish these? Does someone have to proclaim their actions as willfully religious, or can we generalize from behaviors observed in humans around the world? From an anthropological perspective, it is very clearly religious behavior, even if the subjects themselves would disagree.

For the sake of the discussion, I would say that the worship, or observance, of Time goes on without conscious recognition of Time as a distinct entity — and is therefore a process of learned action and not of divine interaction, real or imagined. It’s a religion, without a god.

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