This was an active month on the podcast and blog, and I got some extremely thoughtful responses. The following are just a fraction of the comments and emails I received. Even if I’m not able to feature every single excellent comment I receive I so appreciate them, and please keep them coming.
The most popular blog post this month was Breaking Down God, and it inspired a flurry of email exchanges. I received this email from S., a member of The Satanic Temple, reflecting on her own grappling with the definition of God:
Some time ago a very conservative Muslim lady, who is a dear friend of mine, looked me in the eye with a very serious, scrutinizing look and asked me whether I believed in God. Usually we avoid the topic of my religion, I think because she fears I’m an atheist, which would be difficult for her to reconcile with the fact that she generally likes me and thinks I’m a good person. (For context: this person was born and raised inside a very stable and conservative community, and has had very little contact with outsiders and their views. She knows I’m from a secularized Christian country.) I answered yes, which wasn’t a lie at the time, but somehow I felt uneasy about my answer. This was before I joined TST, and I was still convinced that if I started identifying as an atheist, I would have to give up my sense of wonder and awe for the world around me, and somehow dismiss religion and the religious experience altogether (Greg/Penemue wrote an excellent article about this that really helped me understand my crooked world view). My answer made me increasingly uncomfortable afterwards, because I started to realize that my former definition of God has very little to do with the God that my friend reveres. So my answer to her question, which was asked under her definition of God, should have been no.
To her, God is the promise that your suffering has a purpose, that one day you will be rewarded for your unwavering faith (believing that he has your best interest at heart even when tragedy strikes) and devotion (praying five times a day even if you don’t feel like it, it’s inconvenient, and others in your community take a more relaxed or pragmatic approach to their holy duties). I can imagine why this is a source of strength for her, since she has seen her fair share of tragedy, and God is a reminder that these terrible things are only minor events in the grand scheme of things, and that someday she will be recompensed for her troubles if only she keeps placing her bets on this one God. It offers a sense of security and control. But this comes at a price, because she also believes in divine punishment for those who choose a different path. So any person that is sympathetic to her who does not share those views, is, to some extent, a problem.
I want to bring this up at some point – explain to her that I do not believe in God as this judgmental entity – but I haven’t found a good moment yet. Reading all those different definitions was very eye-opening to me. We all have our ideas about God, but we also have assumptions about what God means to certain other people, and your post showed me that comparing definitions can be very helpful to understand where the other person is coming from. The image of my friend’s God which I just sketched was compiled by me based on various conversations we’ve had. I could be very wrong, perhaps I missed or misinterpreted some key points, maybe her views have changed since then, so I think it would be good to just start a conversation with these basics: what is God to you? And we can go from there.
My friend Greg Stevens, frequent guest on Sacred Tension and director of Ministry for The Satanic Temple, expressed his frustration with one aspect of my article Breaking Down God. For the theists in my audience, I would be incredibly curious to hear your response to his critique:
I’m been trying to think about why I (a non-theist, non-supernaturalist) found myself feeling so frustrated as I was reading the section about theists describing God as undefinable / ineffable. I think it was frustrating me because the answers came across to me, on some level, as….. dishonest. Now, please don’t get me wrong: I do not think the people who shared those answers were lying or being manipulative. But I found myself feeling “annoyed” because their answers SEEMED TO ME to be dishonest, and it got me trying to understand why I felt that way.
At the core of it, any conversation about definitions is (in my experience) a conversation about what traits you associate with a thing. Ask for a definition of a cat, and people will start listing traits of cats. Ask someone what they thing “love” means, they will start listing attributes: either how people act, or how they feel, or what kind of history they have together, and so on.
So, my thought process goes like this: Either you have, in your mind, traits that you associate with God or you don’t.
Now, if you don’t have ANY TRAITS AT ALL associated with “God”, then saying “I believe in God” has the same semantic status as saying “I believe in Snogfloogle”…. which seems unlikely. So if you claim you don’t have any traits in your mind about god at all, you seem dishonest to me.
However, if you do have some traits in your head that you associate with “God”, then any conversation about how you define or understand “God” is obviously a conversation that is trying to get you to discuss those traits…. and so, if you avoid talking about those traits by saying “god is ineffable”, it feels deceptive. You’re being shifty, and avoiding the question.
At this point, some people might object “Well, it’s impossible to come up with a definition that completely encompasses God!”
That’s true, but also is trivial. Definitions never “completely encompass” anything. If you asked those same people, “what is your definition of cat?” they would probably NOT come back and say: “It is impossible to capture every single cultural and personal association that exists with cat-ness, the full myriad of feelings and connotations of The Cat are overflowing to the point of being indescribable!”
That’s not how they would answer, even though, in a certain sense, that answer is 100% true!
They wouldn’t answer the at way, because they know that when a person asks for a definition of “cat”, that person isn’t asking for a universal all-encompassing set of words that PERFECTLY CONVEYS all things cat-related. They know it’s not possible, for “cat” or any other concept. So they cooperate in the conversation, they understand implicitly that that is not what is being asked, so they answer in the normal way: “A cat is a mammal, and it purrs, and it sits inside cardboard boxes…” (or whatever).
So why don’t they use the same conversational pragmatics when asked about God? They are choosing to fall back on the non-answer. They are choosing to be non-cooperative in the dialogue.
That’s why I think it feels very dishonest to me. When I’ve actually sat down with people who say they believe in God, there is always something that they can say ABOUT the god they believe in: something that makes God different from Snogfloogle.
Even if I asked them a single question, such as “did God exist yesterday?”, I believe they would probably have an answer. They would probably say: “Yes, the God I believe in is a being that existed yesterday.”
So, there you go: it’s not really so “indescribable”, after all, is it?
One article I wrote some time ago, On Creating a Personal Satanic Root Document, continues to be a favorite among my readers. It lays out a potential template for creating a personal Satanic scripture, or a Satanic Book of Shadows.
An anonymous reader reached out to me, offering one of his own rituals as a suggestion for my readers:
In order to have some semblance of order in my house, I have a “shrine mat” where I do my “rituals” (which sometimes just involves drinking kava kava in my coconut shell to start preparing for bed, and sometimes it’s just talking to gain clarity on something). I started doing this by instinct, and I call it the “mat rite”, and is probably somewhat influenced by the Kemetic / ancient Egyptian ritual of “senut” which is about tending to the home shrine, but without the deities. It’s just a small mat on which I lay a black candle and burn incense (usually copal, cedar, myrrh, or cannabis incense). I also like it because it’s portable and I can create different spaces in my home as I clean / declutter, or seasonally as I reinvent myself.
The mat represents my own mind, my own brain, which is made of neural connections and nodes just like the threads that all interconnect somewhere in the mat. And all the rites are meant to represent the progression of neuroplasticity, or conscious way of re-inventing myself by forming new habits and assimilating new information. It represents all the connections I make in my mind which come to relevance and awareness during ritual.
It also makes me aware of my space, my home, and how I use it and how it serves my purposes. So it creates a more coherent unity of space and mind. When I buy something new for my home, or when someone gives me a gift, I usually present it to the mat as a way to acknowledge the meaning of, or be grateful for, that object / relation in my home (this is very Mary Kondo, I suppose).
Either way, over time I have come to see the mat as my personal energy center, and all events that deserve to be ritualized happen on the mat.
Do you have anything you’d like to add to the conversation? Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or send me an email.
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