Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Chatting to God in Secular Atheology

One of the most recognizable religious practices is prayer. Prayer is in some way a communication between the person praying and the supernatural, where in major monotheistic religions that supernatural reality has a decidedly personal existence. Prayer hence has many elements: it can be supplication (asking for something), thanksgiving, adoration, confession (as in, statement of belief) and reception.

Though prayer is multifaceted, I want to single out one sort at the moment as particularly important: prayer as dialogue. Personal, unscripted prayer is a key element in the life of the devout believer and forms the basis of what is referred to as a "relationship with God." Indeed, relationship is often said to be the essence of a believer's religion, or even the substitute for any religion at all; to be spiritual but not religious can sometimes be seen as a relationship with God unmediated by any formalization in religion.

I claim that this type of prayer carries huge benefit because of the character of the communication to a being that is decidedly different from any that can be otherwise encountered. In particular, God has the "omnis" which distinguish God from other human beings and confer that unique place to prayer.

God is omnipotent, keeping the believer in a position of empowered humility, as they both recognise their inferiority to someone all-powerful (leading to humility), yet have direct access in communication to that person (and are thereby empowered). God is omniscient: praying to God necessarily requires honesty, because it is clearly understood that God cannot be deceived. This entails that prayers are even more honest than the believer's own thoughts, since self-deception can be substantially mitigated by actually putting into words (whether said aloud or not) what would otherwise be an unexamined thought.

God is omni-present, which means God is reachable at any time and in any place, allowing unrestricted access, also providing constancy to this process of prayer. Finally, God is omni-benevolent, meaning that once again the believer comes to God in humility (since they are not only inferior in power but in goodness), they come empowered (because God cares about the believer's interests) and God draws out the goodness in the person.

These characteristics make belief in God an incredibly powerful tool. This capacity of God to bring out the best in people is probably part of what is behind the various studies showing that priming a person with religious language can lead to pro-social (or in general "good") behaviour. But unfortunately, the effect is only reliably found in those with religious background. Probably my favourite aspect of prayer in this sense is the capacity to honestly self-reflect, make decisions and set goals. Lacking, however, such an omni-excellent being, how can secular theology provide a suitable alternative?

The most basic first step is to externalise your thought process and the things you want to "pray" about. When we externalise things by saying them out loud or writing them down, they can more easily pass from being unexamined and subconsciously affecting our ideas through to examinable. Writing can be particularly helpful in this regard because not only does writing slow us down to think about what we write, it is also easy to review once we finish writing or some time later, allowing us to more critically examine our thought process. On the other hand, vocalising our prayers provides a much more "real time" option, avoiding the tidying up effect that writing something down provides. Playing around with which works best for you, or combining them in different ways, will yield the best results.

Whilst externalising can provide the full benefit of this form of prayer for some, others are more skilled in self-deception, so will need to make the prayer more external still. This does not mean that you need to talk to another real person, you can talk to the same "person" that the believers do. After all, on secular atheology, the believer only thinks they are talking to God. In reality, they are speaking to a figment of their imagination. What stops you from doing the same? Imagining speaking or writing to God, once you have built up the practice, can be just as good as the "real" thing that theists do. It does take practice and an element of honesty with yourself to do this, because you will need to temporarily conjure up in your imagination a being that does not exist. Once you have practice, however (and this is essentially all that theists have: practice), you too can have your own fictional deity. Whatever your view of some other religion's God, your temporary religion is going to have whatever you think of as an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing being.

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