Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos
stir us – there is a tingling in the spine,
a catch in the voice, a faint sensation
of a distant memory, as if we were falling
from a great height. We know we are approaching
the greatest of mysteries. …Carl Sagan
I have…a terrible need…shall I say the word?…of religion.
Then I go out and paint the stars. …Vincent van Gogh
I am not a religious person. Call me pagan or spiritual, cosmically wowed, if you must, but not religious.
I was never indoctrinated to believe in a paternalistic sky-guy who knows when I’ve been bad or good (except for Santa Claus, of course). This doesn’t mean I have a problem with others’ belief systems. In fact, on a metaphysical level, I appreciate the idea of something in the universe that’s…metaphysical.
In my curious quest for this – and to better understand the magical thinking of the religious – I’ve read everything I could. Sacred tomes eastern, western, traditional and non, Bullfinch, Joseph Campbell, The Golden Bough – their comparative mythology was my catechism. While the notion of a Big G god never suited my tastes, the storyteller in me was definitely hooked. After all, life’s full of mystery and, in the absence of science or philosophy, we fill in the blanks from the wild and woolly recesses of our imaginations. Yeah!
One thing I took away from this study was that our gods – especially the old gods – were magnificent.
They would knock your socks off – if you had socks. That was their purpose in the cosmic picture. They were creators of galaxies, shapers – and destroyers – of worlds. They were Super Natural in every sense of the word, large enough to swallow the sun and drain the oceans in a single draught. They were truly metaphysical.
And that not only made sense, it was also so cool. Our ancestors took no half-measures when delving into the realm of cosmic movers and shakers. If we need gods to solve mysteries, to give shape to human existence, inspire us to raise ziggurats and cathedrals, to create music and art that shake the soul, they should be jaw-droppingly awesome. Be they many or one, male or female, great mountain or marvelous beast, to teach us anything, they must be extraordinary.
The ancients understood this.
They also understood that “religion” could provide social, political, and ethical structure. It could give form to a culture in its nascence, and the veneer of anointed authority to those who would claim power. And, indeed, the wisest, most resilient tenets are echoed from creed to creed, around the globe. But that’s power, politics, sociology, and sometimes good hygiene. Not god.
Even as science began explaining the previously inexplicable, for the faithful, god was still supposed to be ineffably awesome. The alchemists and mystics embraced this, realizing that figuring out the universe can make it – and its creator – all the more remarkable. As Terry Pratchett said, “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
So, when did god become so small? Because it doesn’t take a theologian to see that religion and the people who wield it – the fanatic faithful around the world – have sucked all the cosmic wonder out of the divine. They have turned their gods into petty bureaucrats, micromanagers of the absurd. This is all wrapped up in a bundle of personal prejudices and violent convictions which trump civil law and common decency, not to mention, for many, the prime directives of their faiths. They walk through life with the certainty of the zealot, burdened by a “personal” relationship with god that sets them above the rest of us poor mortals. But hey, they’re prophets in their own minds, with a veritable Keystone Pipeline direct to their Supreme Being.
Naturally, this means they know what is best for the rest of us: god speaks to them, tells them who is worthy of being president, or a marriage license, or knowing what to do with their own body. They know – because their god tells them – that an embryo is more deserving of care than the person carrying it or the person it becomes, especially if that person is gay or transgender or poor or not white or a pro-choice physician. That’s the sort of thing he (for this god is invariably “he) worries about.
The glaciers are melting, the oceans are dying, species are disappearing at ELE rates, and human beings are spending inordinate amounts of energy and resources trying to devise bigger and better ways of wiping each other out. But, despite what the Pope and the Dalai Lama – men with official hot lines to god – might say, god doesn’t really care about any of these things. He’d rather poke around in your neighbor’s bedroom (never your own) than worry about climate change or millions facing poverty, illness, and war. He’d rather smite the loving than the murderous, the generous socialist than the avaricious capitalist.
These are divine priorities according to fundamentalists in the know. They are convinced with an archaic lack of scientific reasoning, that one gay couple with a marriage license or one Roman ruin left standing in Palmyra will piss off god, forcing him to smite the lot of us.
And of course, they know this because he tells them, and it is their duty to tell the benighted rest of us lest we sully our souls and can’t get into heaven – though why they would want to hang out in heaven with all us sinners is a question for someone smarter than I.
The very people who insist they know god up close and personal, and want to thrust him into everyone else’s life, have diminished him into the mean-spirited second cousin of the neighborhood yenta. Why would they want to? What has made them so afraid?
For so much intolerance surely comes from lives lived in a place of divine dread.
The notion of god-fearing people used to be considered a good thing. They were the up-right, moral types in their emerging civilizations, following divine rules because those were the rules at hand.
But here’s the thing: We no longer live in the ancient world, and divine retribution has no place in a rational modern scenario. Especially in secular societies. (And yes, Virginia, despite the protestations of every Republican running for the presidential nomination, the United States is still a secular nation.) We have legislatures to pass laws and civil courts to punish those who break them. We have outgrown the need for Olympian thunderbolts, and Pentateuch admonitions.
In short, we have evolved. And I think, if there is some great cosmic creator out there, they would applaud our progress. They would also weep at those who would gut the joy from their creation and make them so much less than they are.
Believe what you wish. And if yours is a cruel, narrow, parochial god, you have my sympathies. Just keep him out of my life.
I shall be out noticing a field full of the color purple, flying with dragons, and painting the stars.
 William Blake, e.g., could see “a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
And as Newton said, “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”
 Yet if, as some say, we are all children of the divine, “god-fearing” translates into living in a state of constant parental terror that would have DCF on the case in a New York minute. Surely this isn’t what a mind-blowing cosmic creator intended. Such a magnificent, perfect guardian wants their children to be happy, to find love and fulfillment. They would care for all of their children equally, without judgment or rebuke. It’s Good Parenting 101.