Jan’s Faith

Introduction

Please note this is a summary of a work in progress.  There will be changes.  If you would like to see the (current version of the) whole paper, please ask for it at jangoss34@gmail.com.  Also, let me know if you want to see new versions that come out.

This is a summary of a paper that is about how someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural can still find many Christian practices meaningful.  (As a summary, it is not as well-argued as the main paper, but it gives the basic idea.)  I wrote the paper to figure out what my theology is.  It is useful for others who are looking for a way to still find much of the religious experience of Christianity meaningful even though they do not believe in the supernatural.  The main Christian practices I am interested in are things like prayer, finding church services meaningful, and social opportunities.  Some theological concepts such as having a relationship with God are also dealt with.

I used to be a conservative Christian (Seventh-day Adventist).  As time went on, I found that I could no longer accept Christianity; and I became an atheist.   However, I did not find that satisfying.  As I looked back on my life, the happiest years were when I was a Christian.  I wanted to find out how I could be a Christian yet preserve my intellectual integrity since I didn’t believe in the supernatural.  This paper is an answer to that quest.  It shows how Christian practices can be meaningful if someone doesn’t believe in the supernatural.  There are some aspects of Christianity that are lost when I remove the supernatural.  But I’m surprised by the large part that remains without the supernatural.

Since I do not believe in the supernatural, I am committed to saying that the religious experiences that Christians have do not come from a supernatural being.  I want to find out what is causing these experiences and see if I can have similar experiences without the belief in the supernatural.  To do this, I change God from being a placeholder for a supernatural being to being a placeholder for nature (or “how things work”).

Language is a system of placeholders.  Words are placeholders for objects, activities, concepts, and even other placeholders.  When the speaker says something, she sends a series of placeholders.  For instance: “William ran into the house.”  The way it works is that the speaker uses her knowledge in general (IE she can draw from everything she knows) to understand what the placeholders are referring to, and probably to know a lot about each of those things.  In order for it to work, the listener has to also draw from her knowledge to know what those placeholders refer to.  This allows the speaker, with a string of 5 words, to convey a lot of information.  For instance, while “William” is a placeholder for the specific person they both know, named William, they both probably know things about William.  (There are many people named William.  This placeholder probably refers to a specific person.)  So, when the speaker uses the placeholder “William”, she is indicating that the listener needs to access her knowledge to understand the role “William” is playing in the communication.  So, with that sentence, the listener gets a lot information about William, the house, the activity, and the positional change.  The listener already knows all of that (except that William ran into the house), but the placeholders cause the listener to draw on her knowledge to understand the sentence.  It is really amazing what we can do with language.  The catch, though, is that every one of the placeholders has to refer to something similar for both the speaker and the listener.  If even one single word is a placeholder for something significantly different for both the speaker and listener, then a miscommunication takes place.  When we think, we still use words as placeholders, but we use them to form thoughts.

It is important that I describe how placeholders work in language because placeholders are a very important concept in my paper.

To me, the word “God” means nature.  When I use “God” (other than when talking about traditional Christian beliefs) I don’t use it to refer to a supernatural being.  Rather, I use it to refer to nature.

Now we have an interesting problem here.  I said above that the placeholder has to refer to something similar between people.  But now I say that I shift God from being a placeholder for a supernatural entity to a placeholder for nature.  But nature is very different from a supernatural being.  How can this possibly work?  I deal with that later in the paper.

Another question is how do things like prayer, repentance, the afterlife, the plan of salvation, and other doctrines, fit into my system?  I will deal with those later.  Some of those work with my system, but others don’t.  Another question I will deal with is why I even need to use the word “God” when I am not dealing with a supernatural being?

Relationship with God

When I was building a relationship with God as a conservative Christian, what was I doing?  Since there is no supernatural being to build a relationship with, I believe that I was making the right relationship with nature.

It could be thought that since God is just a placeholder for nature, it can’t do anything.  I disagree.  If one lives in harmony with nature, it can be powerful at helping you.  (If you don’t live in harmony with nature, you can have problems.)  Now what are these patterns?  Am I just imagining something that is not there?  (And likewise, do I think that Christians, who believe in a supernatural God, are imagining patterns that aren’t there when they are convinced that God blessed them?)  I don’t think that needs to be the case.  Nature has lots of patterns.  For instance, if I am nice to people, they will likely be nice to me.  If I am grumpy with people, I make it more difficult for them to be nice to me.  If one is financially responsible, one avoids problems that other less responsible people have.  A third example is that if someone does things that are in harmony with the way the body works, it will work well.  If one doesn’t live in harmony with the way the body works, there will be problems.  Fourth, for decades (centuries?) we have not had sufficient respect for nature.  Things like global warming are the result.  Basically, if one has a good relationship with nature (the world around them), nature is more likely to be good to that person than if that person did not live in harmony with nature.  To use the God placeholder, if you have a right relationship with God, then God will tend to be good to you.

One potential problem is that if God is a placeholder for nature, then it isn’t sentient, so isn’t aware of me.  So how can it help me?  I think there is some similarity to a dishwasher.  It isn’t sentient, but it can still help me wash the dishes.  Of course, nature is far more complicated.  However, just like if I use the dishwasher properly it will help me with the dishes, if you live in harmony with nature (IE use it properly), it will help you.  If you fight with nature, it will harm you.

Of course, this is overly simplistic.  Nature doesn’t always work that way.  For instance, someone can be very grumpy, but there is someone who is really nice to that person.  Some companies have been very disrespectful to nature and made lots of money.  They have left the consequences for others to take care of.  Someone can take very good care of their health and yet die young.

This is similar to karma, but less rigid.  Karma generally states that if you do good things, good things will happen to you.  If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you.  Karma in some belief systems is a certainty.  Good or bad happens to you based on what you do.  However, that is not how the world works unless you believe in an afterlife.  Instead, it is more probabilistic.  If you live in harmony with nature (IE do good things), then good things are more likely to happen for you than if you fight with nature (or are disrespectful to nature).

Trust in Jesus

Trust in Jesus can mean 2 things.  First, traditional Christians believe Jesus to be God (part of the Godhead).  The part about the relationship with God covers that.

Second, Jesus was a remarkable man, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  One can look at his lifestyle and sayings and see if they are worth following.  If so, then trust in Jesus is just trust that following his example and teachings is worthwhile.  Unfortunately, the Gospels are not a good representation of who the real Jesus was.  However, there are enough traces of the real Jesus that scholars can get an idea of who Jesus was and what he said.  (But then if you feel the Jesus of the Gospels is worth following, then trust in Jesus is trust that the teachings and example of that Jesus is worthwhile.)

Resurrection

Jesus wasn’t resurrected physically.  However, the gospels portray the men at and just after the crucifixion as being discouraged and thinking the whole thing of Jesus being the Messiah as being over.  However, something spectacular happened.  We don’t know what that was.  Perhaps hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead; or perhaps someone found a way to make sense of the crucifixion.  After that, the disciples were so enthusiastic about Jesus that they were willing to die for the cause.  So while Jesus didn’t come to life physically, his teachings, memory of his example, and mission did come back to life.

Prayer

It’s natural to assume that prayer involves something external that helps us, because that is exactly the case when a supernatural entity is a foundation.  However, there need not be anything external helping us if we remove that supernatural entity and replace it with nature (or the way things work).  It might merely change thought patterns.

There are several kinds of prayer.  I will show how some of these work.

Praise:    I think that who you praise is much less important than that you praise.  It can be wondered how you praise if there is no one to praise.  Think of it in terms of thankfulness.  Thankfulness can be with or without an object.  You can have “x is thankful that y did z”.  Or you can have “x is thankful of z”.  Praise in my system is like the latter.

Solitary request for self:  An example of this is that I lose my keys, I pray, then I find them.  This happens far more frequently for me than coincidence would allow.  I think that this does 2 things.  First, it gives me a rest that is needed.  Second, it changes my mode of thinking into one that is more creative.

Prayer in a group:  This includes prayer with a friend, or group of friends, or in front of the church.  Any time there is more than one person involved in the prayer, I consider it to be a group prayer.  I can think of 3 things this can do.  First, it is similar to praying for oneself.  It can change the way people are looking at the issue.  Second, it informs people in the group about issues.  Not only does the prayer itself inform about issues, but it can invite people to ask for more information after the prayer.  Third, it forms some sort of bond in the group.  The person saying the prayer isn’t simply talking, and the other people listening.  Rather, the person saying the prayer is leading the prayer, and the other people in the group are praying with her.  In doing so, the group has experienced something together.

Individual intercessory prayer:  I feel I have dealt with group intercessory prayer when I dealt with group prayer, so here I will only deal with solitary prayer.  (If I am alone and pray for someone else, or a group of other people.)  I can think of 3 kinds of intercessory prayer.  First, someone asks me to pray for them, and I do so.  Second, I pray for someone who hasn’t asked me to pray but I’m involved with.  Third, I pray for someone I don’t know, and never will be involved with.

When I pray for someone, I know (whether or not they ask me to), it can help me focus my attention on her, and perhaps help find a solution to her problem.

When someone asks me to pray for them (or someone else), I agree to pray for them because it makes them happy and comfortable. Then I pray in order to keep myself honest.

Individual intercessory prayer for someone I’m not connected with, and I don’t know, is getting so remote that I see almost no value in this unless one believes in the supernatural.  Perhaps it might inspire me to some sort of action, but I think it is almost totally worthless.

Communicating with Christians

Another benefit of this system is that it makes it easier to communicate with other Christians (whether talking in person, listening to a sermon, or singing a hymn).  While the deep structure of my belief system is vastly different from that of a typical Christian, a lot of the surface structure is similar.  For instance, we both praise God, pray to God for help, and participate in worship.  The deep structure doesn’t always need to be focused on.  We can have a meaningful conversation just using the surface structure.

Conclusion

I believe that someone such as myself who does not believe in the supernatural can benefit from doing Christian things.  I believe that many of the things that Christians do can benefit people like me in the same way they benefit the Christian.

I also want to emphasize that I am not recommending this belief system to everyone.  Most Christians (I think) are comfortable believing in a supernatural being.  That is great so long as it is meaningful to them and makes them better people.  Also, many (probably most) atheists throw away everything to do with God entirely.  That is also great so long as it brings meaning to their lives and makes them better people.  But this belief system works for me.  It might also work for other people who don’t believe in a supernatural God but want to engage in Christian practices.

It might be thought that it is dangerous trying to hang on to some aspects of Christianity.  After all, religion has done a great deal of harm in the past and is still doing harm today.  Surely we should just discard it.  But I think it is belief in the supernatural that has caused that harm.  There is the idea that God knows what he is doing, so we need to enact religious laws and teach creation.  There are people who want people to be saved so they are ready for the afterlife.  There is fear of what might happen if we don’t obey the laws given by a powerful supernatural entity.  One might be afraid of what people might do if they are in league with Satan.  People can make use of this fear to obtain wealth and power.  But these all have to do with the supernatural.  Once the supernatural is removed, the above problems don’t apply.  So, I disagree that it is dangerous to keep the parts of Christianity that can be supported by nature.

I talk a lot about some things being supported while others aren’t.  What I mean to say when something is supported is that it will work in my system.  (If I use nature as the foundation, things that are supported by that foundation are things that still work.)  For instance, praise is supported.  One can still be thankful even if there is no supernatural entity.  The plan of salvation is not at all supported.  Once the supernatural entity is removed, the whole idea of the plan of salvation no longer makes any sense.  Prayer is partly supported.  Some forms of prayer (like praise) work, while other forms (like some types of intercessory prayer) don’t work.

This is where my paper concludes.  I have several appendixes.  Some are just interesting information.  But some of them are important.  I summarize the important ones here.

What is the supernatural?

What is the supernatural?  It is something beyond nature.  So, what is nature?  I have 2 definitions.  First, something is natural if it is testable, and/or we can explain how it works.  This works most of the time, but it fails in an interesting way.  Some things aren’t testable or explainable.  For instance, lightning in the time of the Greeks.  The Greeks didn’t have an explanation for it other than a god.  Therefore, according to that definition, in reality, lightning actually was caused by supernatural means during the time of the Greeks.  But in hindsight, we know that to be false because lightning now is testable and explainable.  We can just say that lightning was a natural phenomenon because it is now testable and explainable.  That is great for modern historians but worthless for the Greeks.  They didn’t have the benefit of knowledge from thousands of years in the future.  It is also useless to us (other than for studying history) for the same reason.  We don’t have the benefit of knowledge thousands of years in the future.  So, the second definition is that someone believes something is natural if she trusts then some time in the future it will be testable and/or explainable.  This will work for the Greeks.  We can say that the Greeks who believed lightning to be natural were closer to the truth.

But if we must trust something without current evidence, why trust nature rather than a supernatural entity?  There are numerous reasons.  One is that there is a huge amount of evidence of things that were once thought to be supernatural later having natural explanations.  I can think of no case where we had a testable natural explanation for something and then discovered that it was actually supernatural.  It seems to go one way.  We should put our trust in nature because there is huge evidence of its past successes.  On the other hand, there is a vast amount of evidence that belief in the supernatural can be very dangerous; and it can cause an environment of fear.  So, if there is no natural explanation, we should still put our trust in nature.

The plan of salvation & Christ’s substitutionary atonement

The plan of salvation – that Jesus died so that God could forgive our sins – is very important in Christianity.  But it does not transfer to my system.  There is no way for God to forgive us if there is no supernatural being doing the forgiving.

I don’t see that as a problem though.  I think the whole idea that God sent his Son to be murdered so that he could forgive us is a toxic doctrine.  What does that say about God?  Why is it good that someone was murdered for us?

I think Paul came up with the doctrine to answer 2 questions.  When the Messiah was supposed to conquer Rome, why was he executed by Rome?  And why are the blood sacrifices at the temple no longer needed?  I think it is a clever doctrine, and I think it worked in the 1st century.  But it passed the expiry date long ago, Today, we don’t need an explanation why blood sacrifices are no longer needed.  We find the whole idea repugnant.   And we don’t need an explanation why Jesus didn’t conquer Rome.  Most people today don’t even know what the Messiah (or Christ) was supposed to be according to ancient Jewish expectations.  They just use “Christ” as a title or name for Jesus.

Why do I need to use the word “God”?

Consider the following quotes.

  1. “God answered my prayer.”
  2. “When I prayed, it changed the way I was thinking. I was more open to different ideas and was thinking more creatively. That helped me find my keys.”

Quote, 1 looks like a religious quote (and given the context, it looks like a Christian one).  While quote 2 is also dealing with prayer, it doesn’t seem to be a Christian quote.  Rather, it looks like a secular explanation of how prayer works.  I seem to have removed Christianity from the quote.  That shows that God seems to be a necessary sill plate for Christianity.

A sill plate is the part of a house that is attached to the foundation and supports the rest of the house.  I wanted to say foundation, but that idea is already used to represent what God is a placeholder for.  Thus, I need God to be something that is supported by the foundation but supports the rest of Christianity.   Even though I suspect most people have never heard of a sill plate (I didn’t until I wrote this summary), I think it is the concept I am looking for as something that is supported by the foundation and supports the rest of the structure.

If I want to change the foundation of Christianity, I need to keep God intact and change what God refers to.  So, if I want to experience Christianity without the supernatural, it is necessary that I keep God intact and change what it is a placeholder for.

These are things in my paper that were skipped in the summary.  While these are interesting and important for a complete study of my system, what I have included in the summary gives the basic idea.

Religion through the ages.

Faith in God.

Simple vs complicated.

Body as the temple of God.

Worship

My experience of leaving Christianity and coming back.

Original sin.

An analogy to Einstein/Newton.

A force or ground of all being.

Afterlife

Taking parts of religion from the original context.

What do I mean by nature?

What is my focus?

More details of God as a placeholder.