Since I live now in my seventy-seventh year, I’ve an excuse for trying to tidy up loose ends, tie threads together, and summarise where I’m ‘at’. Please note, however, that as a believer in life-long learning, I may not be ‘at’ the same place tomorrow, and also that I write, not expecting anyone to share my thoughts, but hoping they might usefully stir them into the pot of their own.
The ‘difficulty’ mentioned in the title begins with the fact that there are words, sounds made by our vocal system, that convey meaning to our minds when uttered in structured combinations, or when written, or typed, as symbols on paper or a digital screen. They’re meaningful because they are, themselves, creations of the human mind.
The difficulty is that these sounds and symbols mostly don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to meaning. They can have a wide range of meanings, which has implications for communication. We may think we understand each other, when this is not the case. Breath and finger tapping can be expended unprofitably, with more heat than light.
When we talk about ‘religion’, what do we mean? Are we talking about ‘institutions’, hierarchical communities organised around mutually held beliefs relating to a god, based on ‘sacred books’? Or, at the other end of a spectrum, do we mean a world-view which doesn’t regard the material world, explicable in terms of chemistry and physics, as the sum total of everything?
This is the end I’m currently ‘at’. I find helpful, a growing re-emergence of the age-old idea that consciousness, awareness, mind is fundamental, matter being its outward expression. One could say that mind is the ‘inside’ of matter, which is the ‘outside’ of mind, and that ‘in the beginning was Mind’.
‘Mind’ suggests intelligence, rationality, design, purpose. This doesn’t entail, however, that there’s ‘a’ Mind, to which we must give a name. The fact that we locate our minds in our brains and bodies, which provide us with a sense of ‘self’, can’t simply be extrapolated to the universe as a whole. For myself, I’m happy to think about design without the need for ‘a’ Designer – which takes us to our next word’.
What does ‘God’ mean? There are, perhaps, as many meanings as human beings. The phrase in Genesis, “the image of God”, can cut two ways. If humans are ‘made in the image of God’, that may be because God is made in the image of humans – a bigger version of ourselves, if blessed with our greatest virtues, cursed also with our deadliest faults. As Xenophanes pointed out, over 2,000 years ago, if horses could draw, they would draw their gods like horses – super-horses, both trampling adversaries under their hooves, and carrying followers up to the stars.
But at the spectrum’s other end, there are those who have pointed out that if ‘God’ transcends the infinite reaches of space and time, then no images are possible. There are no words that can describe what lies outside our experience, and is therefore inconceivable to us, the most appropriate ‘sound’ being silence.
Religion and God are words that deal, not in facts, but in beliefs. This doesn’t mean they’re therefore redundant or mistaken. If beliefs are helpful to ourselves, and harmless to others, let’s hold onto them, but not force them on our fellow beings. But if they prove harmful to ourselves, or to others, then they merit burial in the deepest of waste-bins. That would lay to rest Christopher Hitchins’ claim that “Religion poisons everything”.