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“Religion and God-Talk” - A Progressive Atheist viewpoint.

By: David Miller, Melbourne, Australia.

There has often been discussion on whether Atheists are secular people rather than religious people. The problem, it seems to me, is that we tend to conflate ‘religion’ and the ‘supernatural’. Such confusion is normal within our everyday language. The two words have almost become synonymous. I suggest that we begin the attempt to be more precise. Even if our attempts lead us in different directions, it will at least be illuminating.

Admittedly, historically, the gods have usually been portrayed as possessing supernatural powers. Yet God and the gods are merely symbols for our ‘greatest principles’. These symbols are metaphorical personifications with supernatural powers added on. However, if we remove those powers, there need then be nothing supernatural in this usage. Does that surprise you? Let us take an example. Both theists and atheists occasionally refer to ‘Mother Nature’ as a symbol for nature. Mother Nature is a metaphorical personification of nature. There is no supernaturalism implied in this. She is not treated as a god. Personification is not deification.

How would we go about turning Mother Nature into a god? We would have to give her supernatural powers. For example, we could say that she created nature. That would be sufficient to deify her. However, that would immediately be seen as somewhat erroneous. Mother Nature is merely a symbol for nature. Nature is the reality, Mother Nature the symbol. How can the symbol create the very reality that the symbol symbolizes? It is a category mistake. Yet when we use the generalized symbol ‘God’, our cultural conditioning blinds us to such errors of category confusion as are contained in the commonly heard claim that, “God created everything”.

Religions have been contaminated by this association with the supernatural for tens of thousands of years. Hence the common usage we usually find in our dictionaries. That is, unless you find one, like the Macquarie, that includes within its list of definitions – “the quest for the values of the ideal life”.

Let me start by asserting that, in supernaturalist terms, we do not worship a religion. We worship the gods. Religion is our means of worshipping our gods. Religion is our tool, our method of worship. However, I wish to contend that religions need not necessarily be supernatural, and that supernaturalism does not have to be the basis of religion.

I am claiming that religion is, at base, the worship of our ‘greatest principles’. In an attempt to remove the supernaturalist baggage we could, instead, say that religion is the ‘revering’ of our greatest principles. Or - better still – religion is the means we utilize to ‘venerate’ our greatest principles. Put the other way round: if we wish to venerate our greatest principles, we find (or invent) an appropriate religion with which to do so.

What ought to constitute a religion? Let us begin to look at some of the requirements. First, as already mentioned, is the reverence and veneration of our greatest principles. Second is the apprehension and realization of our greatest principles; in simpler words, getting to know and understand them. Third is the manifestation and actualization of our greatest principles; in simpler words, bringing them into being in our world, both in ourselves as well as in others.

So, if our greatest principles involve no supernatural elements, then our means of venerating them, our religions, need no supernatural methods either. “But what are these greatest principles?” I hear you asking. I will respond by listing the wide-ranging variety of answers humankind has given to that question.
1. Our highest values - e.g. Goodness, truth, beauty.
2. Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, justice, freedom, creativity, etc.
3. Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, oneness, interconnectedness, etc.
4. Our areas of ultimate concern – e.g. Self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc.
As you can see, all of the four categories are completely natural. There is nothing supernatural about any of them.

Some people prefer to symbolize their particular set of principles in the form of a metaphorical personification. Unfortunately, most people throughout history have given supernatural powers to these symbols. Nevertheless, it is possible to hold principles without personifying them, as well as holding personifications without deifying them.

So, in conclusion, I hope that I have begun to show that there is a sense in which I can refute the claim that Atheists are secular and not religious. In my terms, we are both secular and religious. We all find means to venerate our greatest principles.

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