By Joyous Agnos, New Age Islam
19 Jan 2013
You are bound to be dumbstruck, if you think of it, at the enormous amount of time, energy, wealth and emotion that human beings have expended on religion down the centuries—in engaging in prayers, rituals, sacrifices, feasts, fasts, and pilgrimages, in constructing places of worship and contemplation, in creating works of religious art, and also in launching aggressive missionary campaigns, wars of religious conquest, genocides of entire peoples in the name of God and waves of terror driven by religious passion and hopes for instant entry into paradise.
When you consider how much human beings have invested of themselves in the name of God (I am using this term to cover multiple gods in polytheistic traditions as well) you are bound to find it shocking when you realise that almost none of the people you personally know—including yourself—has ever seen, heard or experienced God—at least in the way ‘He’ is conventionally understood by most religionists. This most religionists will readily admit if they are really true to themselves. True, they may have read about people in the distant past who are rumoured to have heard, seen or even conversed with God—but, who knows, maybe these are just fanciful stories that were cooked up by crafty folks to attract unthinking followers to a religious cause or camp? After all, the persons who recount these stories today weren’t themselves present when these ‘holy’ men were around to verify things personally. And, then, even if they were indeed present on the occasion, how could they ever be sure that the person who claimed to have seen or chatted with God was not lying or, to be more charitable, fooling himself? The world has had more than its share of false prophets and deluded self-styled ‘holy’ men, who’ve deceived more than their share of gullible people in the name of God.
In all my years, I’ve never once encountered a person who has seen, heard or experienced God (in the sense ‘He’ is generally understood) personally, although, of course, I’ve met and closely interacted with thousands of ardent believers in diverse religions. They all claim to know about God, but they can’t honestly say that they know God—because they haven’t experienced God themselves, which is the only way to know God. And so, all that they can tell you about God is simply the information or claims that they’ve heard from others or have read in their scriptures.
Speaking for myself, in all my years as a believer not once did I have an encounter with the person that I was led to believe that God was. For a brief spell, I earnestly believed that a voice inside my head was God speaking, which would answer me whenever I expressed a doubt or sought its guidance. But now I am pretty much convinced that I was simply talking to myself then.
If the believers you know have never personally encountered God (in the sense they understand Him), then what, you might want to know, does God mean to them? How do they come to construe and ardently believe in what they call God if they have never experienced ‘Him’ themselves and have only read about ‘Him’ in books or heard about ‘Him’ from others? I’m not quite sure if others do it the same way, but I can speak about how I did so as an erstwhile believer in a personal God. It might, I think, hold true in the case of many other people as well.
It strikes me now that whatever I thought about God was simply what I had read about ‘Him’ in various scriptures and heard from various people who purported to know more about ‘Him’ than I did. It was, in short, mere hearsay—bits and pieces of information, culled from ‘holy’ books and ‘religious’ people, and then shaped together to form an image in my mind—a mental idol, if you like— which I then began worshipping and, at the same time, fearing with an equal intensity. This understanding of God that I lived with all through my years as a believer was not based on any personal experience or realization. It was simply something that I had taken from the outside and imposed on myself because that was what I was conditioned to do as a child. Moreover, this mental idol served several crucial psychological purposes for me. Turning to it in times of distress and even imagining myself conversing with it gave me great solace. It filled with me hope when things seemed utterly bleak. It gave me immense strength to think that many others, too, bowed and scraped before the same mental idol and that, therefore, I was not alone but, rather, a member of a vast community of fellow believers. My faith in, and devotion to, this mental idol was constantly reinforced by a deep-rooted fear that if I failed to worship it I’d have to suffer long years—who knows, maybe for eternity?—in the fires of hell. That was what the ‘holy’ books I had read and the ‘pious’ men I had met unanimously insisted.
Added proof—as if it were needed—that my conception of God was simply a mental construction, rooted in childhood religious brainwashing, the desire for comfort and solace and the fear of divine wrath and hell-fire, was the fact that it drastically changed over time as my own religious views began to transform by being exposed to different ways of imagining the divine. In the beginning, as a child, I was conditioned to believe—because this was what my parents had told me—that the ‘supernatural’ realm was populated by a host of divine beings. Some of them were multi-limbed and had animals’ heads. Others had wings, like birds. Some were angry and blood-thirsty, while others were benign. All sorts of stories—including some shockingly immoral, and others utterly absurd—were related about these figures. They all had faces and physical forms, like living beings, which made it possible to emotionally identify with them with an intensity that would have been otherwise impossible. These deities I was made to believe in were more real to me than probably anything in the ‘real’ world.
Later, as I began to think for myself, I came in touch with other faith traditions which, or so I then thought, had a more sensible, or less confusing, understanding of God—as a single personal being. God, as these traditions conceived ‘Him’, was, as in the case of the polytheist tradition I grew up in, human-like in a way. Although believers in this version of God thought they were superior to the polytheists, they couldn’t seem to understand—as I didn’t then but do now—that the God of their imagination was as anthropomorphic or human-like as those who worshipped multiple gods—and definitely more male-centric as well (the polytheists worshipped goddesses, too, while the monotheists worshipped a God who seemed to be distinctly male, and a quite aggressive one at that). This God was construed as an omnipotent dictator: ‘He’ could love and be compassionate, but ‘He’ could also be angry and hate and go about destroying people who didn’t believe in and pray to ‘Him’. ‘He’ would throw such people into the leaping fires of hell, where they would rot for all time to come and be stung non-stop by scorpions and snakes with no hope whatsoever of redemption. On the other hand, ‘He’ would reward those who regularly prayed to ‘Him’ with enormous mansions in heaven, where they could have endless sex with titillating women and drink as much wine as they wanted to. Books I read about this God described ‘Him’ as sitting on a vast throne up in the skies somewhere, from where he directed the affairs of the world. That is precisely how I started thinking of ‘Him’ once I abandoned the primitive polytheism that I was reared in. I could even imagine ‘Him’ dressed in a long white gown and sporting a flowing white beard, with a yolk-yellow halo dancing above ‘Him’ and an angry frown crumpling ‘His’ forehead.
But some years later, I grew tired of this sterile notion of God, too. I had had no experience whatsoever of this God that would enable me to confirm that ‘He’ was indeed a reality, just as I had never personally experienced the deities of the polytheistic pantheon that I had once devoutly fawned on. I now began to read up on other understandings of the divine. I came across writings by people who seemed to share with me a suspicion of much of what they had been conditioned to believe in in the name of God. They honestly admitted that the anthropomorphic notions of God (common to both polytheistic and monotheistic traditions) that they had once staunchly defended were definitely not rooted in their own personal experience. They had certainly never seen, heard or experienced this God. Blind belief in ‘Him’, in most cases, had been imposed on them when they were vulnerable children, through powerful parental conditioning, so that they believed in ‘Him’ only because that is what their parents had consistently told them they must. Many of them had been driven by the fear of hell-fire, and some by the greed for heaven, into blind conformity to their parents’ diktats. But they could no longer be dishonest—certainly not with themselves. They had definitely never experienced this God, despite having believed in ‘Him’, and so they had decided they were just not going to believe in ‘Him’ any longer. It was obvious to them that ‘He’ was a fiction.
The God they had been socialized into believing in did not exist—at least as far as their experience was concerned. They had spent years agonizing on the matter and had concluded that they could not pretend to believe in God as a person or being (and a doddery male at that!)—which was how almost all the religions conceived ‘Him’ as. None of them had heard, seen or experienced this God, and they had never met anyone else who had. How, then, they asked, could they believe in something that they had not experienced personally, and probably never would? How could they be expected to defend something which they did not really know existed? Would that not be rank hypocrisy, and stupidity too, and unforgiveable self-deception as well?
But even as these people refused to consent to believing any longer in a God made in a human image who didn’t bear any relation whatsoever to their personal experience, they weren’t hardened atheists. Some of them described themselves as agnostics—folks who are definitely more honest than both believers and atheists in that they admit that they simply don’t know if God or various other such unseen forces or beings are a reality or not. Others said they did know and adore (as opposed to believe in) God—but that this God, whom they had personally experienced, had nothing to do with the almost human-like person that most religionists conceived ‘Him’ as. For them, God was life itself, the totality of existence, the impersonal force or mysterious energy or utterly inexplicable law that pervaded the whole cosmos, whose reality scriptures and men might claim to expound but which remained far beyond human comprehension and inexplicable in words and thoughts. This God of their understanding was definitely something everyone could experience.
If this was God, then this was a God I could very well accept.
The more I read works of this sort, the less I felt the compelling psychological need to hold onto the beliefs about God that I had clung to for many, many years. Gradually, those beliefs—which were not rooted in my own experience but which I had simply picked up from scriptures and from other people—began to drop by themselves, without my needing to force them to. It was a major relief to see them go—for they had turned into heavy fetters. How liberating it was to no longer have to force myself to believe—out of fear, guilt and greed—in beings, persons, forces and supernatural claims that I had no personal experience of you can understand only if you experience this let-go yourself.