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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Towards a Modern God

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Sam Harris argues in “There is No God (and you know it)” that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence”. In his argument is the view that we must ‘let go’ of the existence of God because the religious ideology surrounding this belief has been and continues to be a primary source of most pain and suffering in the world, historically and today (e.g. wars, terrorism, etc.).

I agree wholeheartedly with Sam that religious ideology and a ‘God’ that provides the source for such ideology is and has proven detrimental to society and that we must begin to investigate how and why it has remained so long in the face of such pain. However, when an individual is asked to ‘let go’ of a belief, particularly one in which they were steeped in throughout life, we need also ask, is there something substantive enough to replace it? Throughout history, we see that scientific discoveries change belief systems by replacing them with more viable alternatives in light of new emerging data. Yet, the experience many people feel when they are in relationship with God, has not had sufficient data of a similar nature, to persuade or convince them that there is an alternative to a belief in ‘God’ that will yield such an experience. And herein lies the key.

Science has historically provided explanations of the world ‘out there’, a mechanistic explanation centered in cause and effect with little role for the observer (the person) in discovery of the ‘truths’. In contrast, one’s belief in ‘God’ is a very internal discovery process, in a relationship with God one begins to experience states of being that seem somewhat different from oneself, somewhat ‘beyond oneself’, and from this first person experience of connection, there is a deep knowing that there is something very real in the experience.

As science shifts toward the recognition of the role of the observer in creating experiences (quantum physics), the separation of science from this first person experience begins to diminish. The experience of ‘inner’ discovery (awareness) becomes as valuable as ‘outer discovery’. Seen this way, the experience of a relationship with God can be reframed as a process of inner discovery in which the transcendence of the ‘self’ is possible, the awareness of interconnectedness with others, nature, and humanity (past, present, and future) is evident. Thus, we can open our minds and hearts to acceptance of an experience in God, if God is viewed that way, rather than a ‘task-master’ creating ‘to do lists’ for living. Because in the experience of interconnectedness arises a sense of caring and compassion (how can one hurt that which is in effect a part of oneself?) and through this experience the actions arising can only be ones of peace.

Calling that relationship of interconnectedness, that experience of being ‘beyond oneself’, God, is only problematic when it is not distinguishable from a ‘man-made’ interpretation of that experience reflected in much religious ideology. Separating the first person experience from the collection and direction of ‘rules’ and ‘lists’ generated by humans in the form of books that make the basis of religious doctrine is taking the first step in helping our world ‘let go’ of dogma surrounding the experience of God. Recognizing and experiencing the relationship of oneself with something beyond oneself, the awareness of our interconnectedness or dependent origination, is called by many names, including God; returning to the experience rather than ‘belief’ and recognizing the difference will yield a kinder world and one consistent with atheist and non-atheist experiences alike.