I recently finished reading When God is gone everything is holy by Chet Raymo. A veteran of a Roman Catholic upbringing who later embraced empiricism and science, Raymo describes himself as a Catholic Agnostic. His shift in beliefs was dramatic: not only does he no longer believe in a “personal God” who watches over humans with love or judgment, he doesn’t even believe in souls or an abstract “creator god” who set the big bang in motion. Instead, he believes the best way to understand the physical universe is through scientific method and rigorous hypothesis-testing. Any hypotheses that cannot be tested need not apply.
Yet he still identifies culturally as a Catholic. He says: “For all of my agnosticism, I call myself a Catholic. Not because I can recite Creed (I can’t), or because I practice that particular faith (I don’t), but because the substance of Catholicism went into my system like mother’s milk… I love the Catholic liturgical tradition–the wax, water, fire, chrism, candlelight, bread, wine, palm fronds, color, chants, bells–the whole sensual celebration of the material world.”
He describes eloquently and passionately the connection he feels with the symbolism and history of the tradition. For him, that emotional connection makes him want to find an interpretation of religious ideas such as God, prayer, soul, and divinity that allow him to tap into the wonder and history enmeshed in those terms, while still making sense within his materialist scientific view of nature.
Raymo is radically anti-dualist. “Descartes was wrong,” he writes, “We are not body and soul. We are body. We are colonies of cells who make music, write poems, remember experiences, invent gods, love, hate, build cathedrals, go to war… Each of us is a chemistry set that knows it is a chemistry set–a chemistry set unlike any other.” He quotes Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde to remind us of the great mysteries and wonder we can experience from the world that we can see, without a need to invoke some other mysterious “invisible world” of spirits.
And yet for all of that, he still reaches to find a meaning for that vague sense of soul that has captured the human imagination for millennia. “What a thing it is to think of ourselves as manifestations of this magnificent molecular machinery, ceaselessly animating the world with sensation, emotion, intelligence,” he says. “To say that it is all chemistry doesn’t demean life; rather, it suggests that the fabric of the world is charged with potentialities of a spectacular sort. Forget all that other stuff–the angels, the auras, the disembodied souls. Embodied soul is what really matters.”
He also finds room in his science-based worldview for prayer. He quotes the poet Mary Oliver, who says “I don’t know exactly what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.” He quotes a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton who says: “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer… Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer…” Thus Raymo is able to talk about the role of praying in his life, despite his agnostic (what most people would call atheistic), non-supernaturalist cosmology.
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It’s a very beautiful metaphorical way of weaving religious language into a naturalist worldview; however, it does make me think of my favorite bit if dialogue from Through the looking glass by Lewis Carroll:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
One of my constant struggles in life has been to decide whether I am Alice or Humpty, in this conversation. To this day, I’m not sure.
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I explained Raymo’s Catholic Agnosticism to my best friend, and he said: “That sounds just like Satanism!”
He’s a bit of a smart-ass… but he’s not wrong.
Modern Satanism is an explicitly atheistic religion: modern Satanists do not believe in God any more than they believe in a literal Satan. The appeal of identifying as a Satanist comes from the emotional draw of the mythology and symbolism that our culture associates with the fictional character Satan: the rebel, the denier of faith, the seeker of personal knowledge, the one who refuses to bow down. The iconography of Satanism has an appeal to anyone who feels a connection with the narrative of the outsider.
Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan and author of The Satanic Bible, talked about casting spells and performing ritual magic; yet for him, these were not connected to any supernatural forces. For LaVey, a magical ritual had power simply because of the cathartic psychological effect it had on the participants. Casting a “spell” called on no spirits and exerted no supernatural force on the world; it was simply a way of talking about the complex web of subtle gestures and senses that get transmitted between people, below the level of conscious awareness, when you approach them a certain way. For LaVey, guile was a form of magic; charisma was a form of magic. And for LaVey, calling them magic rather than guile or charisma was part of the aesthetic of being a Satanist.
Raymo felt a strong cultural draw to words like “soul” and “prayer,” and so he sought out a way to understand those words so that they could be fit into a naturalist cosmology. He called the result: Catholic Agnosticism.
LaVey felt a similar emotional draw to “ritual” and “magic ,” and so he reinterpreted them within a science-based, non-supernaturalist framework, as well. He called the result: Satanism.
If you stripped away the narratives, the romance, and the poetry, and laid their raw beliefs about how the universe works side-by-side with one another, there would likely be very little difference between them. The difference is in the narratives, not in the beliefs per se.
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There was a time when I strongly opposed this kind of language-play. In 2010 I wrote this in an online article:
Most of the time when we ask, “Does X exist?” we start with a concrete definition of X, and then we try to figure out whether there is anything in the world that fits that definition.
For example, when we ask “Do aliens exist?” we start with the definition: “an ‘alien’ is a living thing, preferably intelligent, that evolved on another planet.” Then, we go about trying to figure out if we can find things that meet that definition.
What we DO NOT do is this: “I really would feel more comfortable with the world if we could just get everyone to agree that aliens exist. So let’s re-define ‘alien’ to mean ‘hunk of rock that came from another planet.’ Then, with that definition, we can all agree that aliens exist!”
To me, this is what the above project does with “God”. Instead of taking one (any) of the religious definitions of God that are out there, the author says, “I think it would be cool to be able to say that I believe in God, so I will re-define ‘God’ in a way that is acceptable to me.”
My 2010 self would not have cared for Raymo or LaVey.
This is why I was more drawn to The Satanic Temple than the Church of Satan. Although The Satanic Temple has performative rituals and enjoys a good spectacle–especially when it is in the service of making a point about the separation of church and state–they steer clear away from talk of “magic” and the invocation of esoteric powers.
They even include in their Seven Fundamental Tenets a statement about the importance of verifiable truths:
Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
So for the sake of accuracy, shouldn’t we avoid talking about magic? Using the same line of reasoning, wouldn’t Raymo be better off avoiding using words like “prayer” when he really just means “getting swept up in a sense of awe when looking at a sunset”?
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To his credit, Raymo is cautious about his own use of religious language in a naturalistic context, and aware of the tensions it creates. He contrasts the perspectives of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, for whom “God” refers to the ultimate set of powers in the universe, the “dread essence beyond logic”, and Richard Dawkins, who argues that it is a sham for atheists to use the word “God” for impersonal powers, when we all know that the common meaning of this term implies a personal being who judges and loves and hears and (sometimes) answers prayers.
Raymo asks: “Can Dawkins be right and Kazantzakis wrong? Is ‘God’ the wrong word for the ‘dread essence beyond logic’? Give Dawkins this: the word is almost irretrievably burdened with personhood.”
Yet despite this acknowledgement, Raymo continues to speak poetically throughout the book, and I can only assume throughout his life, of the vision of “God” he receives through his contemplation of the wonders of quantum-mechanical equations and non-Euclidean geometry.
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I’ve changed since 2010. I’m no longer a language-purist.
I’m a little less Alice, and a little more Humpty.
If you are sitting quietly and staring at the wall in contemplation, I no longer care whether you refer to it as “prayer”, “meditation”, or “power-saving mode”.
I’m more interested in how you reason about ideas, than the words you happen to choose. The words you choose don’t determine whether you are acting like a scientist or a magician. The way you think determines whether you are a scientist or a magician.
Magical thinking is believing something because you want to believe it. Magical thinking is believing something based on a coincidence, or because it makes you feel good. Magical thinking doesn’t care about evidence.
You don’t have to use magical language to engage in magical thinking. When someone claims that the theory of evolution explains the origin of life (it doesn’t), that is magical thinking. When someone claims that all synthetic food additives are poison (they aren’t), that is magical thinking. They are using the words of science, but they do not know what it means to use evidence-based reasoning in a rational way. They are the magicians of science, and they worry me deeply.
I much prefer the magical scientist. The magical scientist might use the word “magic” to refer to an ability to persuade and charm people; but the magical scientist has studied psychology, sensation and perception, neuroscience, and understands that the influence they have is rooted in the subtle ways our neural systems have been tuned by evolution to respond to specific signals.
The magical scientist knows that “prayer” and “power-saving mode” can mean the same thing, depending on who is speaking.
A magical scientist might be the person who says “good luck!” without believing in the idea of luck, just because it’s a nice thing to say.
Or it might be the person who yells at computers for malfunctioning, knowing full well there is no personhood there to receive the retribution.
A magical scientist might be a Satanist.
A magical scientist might be a Catholic Agnostic.
Who knows? A magical scientist might even be you.