I BEGAN THIS RAMBLING ESSAY with a question which my Christian friends have asked of me, now that they know I am an atheist—what has happened to my relationship with God?—and with the fact that my most common answer is that it's better than ever.
Along the way, I've pointed out that there are two referents for the word God:
The internal, subjective, experience, and
The set of beliefs which are taught to believers, and which claim to be objective knowledge about the real world.
But I think I'm a little clearer about that position, now.
I now think that the real point is not about God, or god, at all. It's about reality with a small "r", and about the relative value of Orthodoxy and experience.
It can be summed up in the answers to two questions:
Is there "something out there", which we can be in relationship with, and which is "bigger than all of us", and yet remains a mystery?
It's the real world, and we are part of it.
We relate to it, both objectively and subjectively, constantly—by using the best models we can find for interpreting it, by being true to our own inmost nature, by relating to each other, by taking care of the planet we live on, by doing science to learn more about it, by feeding the cat.
In fact, we can't avoid relating to it.
You can call it god, if you like, but the name you give to a reality doesn't change that reality one whit. (You can call an electron a "wave" or a "particle", but you're only naming the model you're using. The electron remains itself .)
Is there any evidence at all that any one of the thousand and one Orthodoxies that can be found in almost any state or nation has any claim to knowing more about ultimate reality than the average person on the street? Is there any way at all to judge which one has better models than another?
Your pastor, priest, or favorite theologian has no reason to believe that he or she has more insight into the nature of the "first cause" or "prime mover" than you do.
Their pronouncements on that subject, like an ancient Roman priest's pronouncements on the nature and desires of Zeus, are about culture , not ultimate reality.
As such, they may be useful, even extremely valuable in some cases, but they shouldn't be taken literally—and definitely shouldn't be taken as infallible.
Insofar as theology claims to be the source of objective knowledge about external reality, it has been clear since the enlightenment that science was the new theology.
What has all this got to do with my answer when people ask me about my "relationship with God"?
Why do I answer that it's "better than ever", and why do I believe what I say?
It's got to do with the difference between reality itself and the models we use to perceive, and talk about, reality.
The "relationship" they're speaking of is a real thing: the awareness of a connection with life, the universe, and everything—and the act of embracing that connectedness.
I'm actually grateful to my Christian background, since it's where I learned the importance of that stance.
But I've also found that Orthodoxy gets in the way—stands between a person and reality by dictating the models that must be used, and the conclusions that must be reached.
So, paradoxically, it was my very seriousness about Christian spirituality that ended up leading me away from the church.
It was that relationship, that connection, that brought me here. And I'm more aware of that connection, more at home with it, more connected than I was in the church.
The difference between me and a theist doesn't lie in the reality itself, but in our models, our interpretations of that reality.
I no longer interpret life, the universe, and everything through the model of a larger than life, invisible human being—both because of the peculiarities of my own internal journey and also because I just don't think the model is a very likely fit, from a practical point of view, given what we really do and don't know about—well, about life, the universe, and everything.
But the reality, the experience itself, I now find to be better, and deeper, more real and satisfying, than when I called it "God".
Which makes me believe that "better than ever" is the most honest, and relevant, answer I can give to their question.
At least, that's what I think today.