God and Superstition
by Dr. Bruce Arnold
In a recent letter, a friend questioned whether belief in God is superstition. After all, one definition of superstition is “any blindly accepted belief or notion.” There is no fact or facts to which one can point, in a scientifically verifiable manner, to demonstrate that God exists. Here is my answer:
This is a great question. But this is too narrow a definition of superstition. Put that way, there are many things, commonly accepted, which would have to be called superstition. For instance, the idea that a human being has inherent dignity and worth cannot be proven on the basis of facts. Given some of the people I’ve known, there is evidence to the contrary. LOL.
And what about the Quaker belief in the Light Within? Do we actually know that there has never been a single person who did not have it? Some poor, soulless person, with less compassion or humanity than a dog or a cat? Again, I’ve known some of those. Yet it doesn’t change my belief in the Light Within, although I cannot prove it with evidence or fact. Nor would we call that a superstition, although some might.
Merriam-Webster gives as its first definition “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation,” and it is in that sense that I use the word. In that sense, there are ideas about God which are definitely superstitious, and others which are not.
This viewpoint changes over time. In the not-so-distant past, the Hindu pantheon was considered by most Westerners to be idolatry of the most superstitious sort. As we have come to comprehend the vast richness of the Hindu cosmology and the sophistication of its philosophy, we recognize that this polytheistic viewpoint is not based on “ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Yet, without considerable study of the subject, most people can be forgiven if they are not familiar with that.
So it is, in my experience, with most Westerners who consider themselves atheists or nontheists. Most; not all, let me hasten to add. Most have rejected, rightly enough, claims about the nature of God which are in fact superstitious and even idolatrous. Look at some of what passes for theology, especially among some of our more fundamentalistic churches, and I cringe, too. I read a blog post by a fellow who wanted to push a street corner preacher away from the microphone and tell the crowd “God is not a monster.” Amen to that.
Having rejected such ignorant trash, however, does not therefore establish that there is no God or that all ideas about God are superstition. Again, most can be forgiven for not having been exposed to some of the sublime conceptions of God which are anything but.
In the final analysis, though, faith in God is not about theology. It’s not about what we think or believe. It isn’t about which set of words are more true and which are more false. We do talk about things that matter to us, and so people will talk about God. But faith, properly put, is not the outcome of the words we use. The words are a pale attempt to describe the experience of faith. I might have difficulty describing the experience of eating a watermelon, of falling in love, of being overcome with grief at the loss of a loved one. It doesn’t mean that these experiences are any less valid for that. Addicts and alcoholics are constantly frustrated in their attempts to communicate what addiction is like to “earth people,” and yet just a few simple words in a 12 step meeting will bring about smiles of recognition, as the truth of his or her experience is shared by others who have been through the same thing.
The atheists and nontheists who I respect are those who admit freely that they have not had the experience of having a living relationship with God, and that it would be dishonest to pretend to believe even in the most philosophically defensible conception without such an experience. They do not claim that, on this basis, there can’t be a God, just that they have no way to say that there is. This has integrity.
Similarly, when I read your words “there really isn’t a non-superstitious way of conceiving of the Divinity”, I translate that in my mind to “I have not encountered a non-superstitious way of conceiving of the Divinity.” And I have no problem with that at all.
You know, I am a fan of “NCIS.” I started watching it because I always liked David McCallum, and was glad to see him back in a starring role on TV. I’ve seen Mark Harmon on many TV shows and movies, and always liked him, too. But the ideas I have of what either of those two men are like are totally based on performances they have given. They might be nothing like any of the ideas I have about who they are. They are actors; they portray a role. The actual experience of knowing them, as a friend or relative, might prove to be very different. Similarly, one who has not had the experience of a living relationship with God — and I don’t know you well enough yet to say whether this is true of you or not — will not find any of the words about God to be of much use, especially if they are honest with themselves about it.
When I talk about God, I feel as though I have left prose and moved into poetry, because all I know how to do is attempt to evoke the experience of God which I have. I don’t find I can say anything worthwhile about God in the way that we can describe natural processes such as the nature of light or Newton’s laws of thermodynamics.
There are ways of describing one’s relationship with the Divine which do not invoke a Deity at all. I am very drawn to them. While I am comfortable with the idea of having a relationship with another living being and calling it God, I find great meaning in the Taoist notion of the Absolute which, while I would consider it to be divine or sacred in the broadest sense of those words, has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of entity. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Yeah, buddy. Truer words were never spoken.
I distinguish between faith and belief. I have many beliefs, like duty, honor, and country, as the old phrase has it. I believe in the Scout Law: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. Like Robert Duvall said in “Secondhand Lions”, it doesn’t matter whether these are true. I believe in them because they are the things one ought to believe in.
Faith, on the other hand, is a word with a special meaning for me. Faith is not belief. It runs deeper than that. I could substitute one belief for another, and still be me. Beliefs are ideas. Faith is my deepest response to the world. It is who I am, reaching out to what is, and being touched by it in turn. It doesn’t matter what words I use to express it, or whether I use words at all.
I don’t need proof of the beauty of a sunset, or of the quality of fine silk, or of the way a loved one’s smile can make your day. I don’t need proof that love is more powerful than hate, or that the truth will set you free. I don’t need proof of Bonnie’s love for me, or mine for her (although all those little demonstrations are wonderful.) These things are, because I would not be me if they were not. Faith in God has the same quality. It’s not rational; neither is it irrational, no more than the smell of a magnolia is rational or irrational. A magnolia would not be a magnolia without its fragrance. And I would not be me, at the most profound level, without my faith in God.