Religious Language For Nonbelievers

Last week’s article The Nontheistic Experience of God provoked some good discussion within my community about meditation, spiritual experiences, and the use of the word “god”.

One reader on Discord responded,

I see no problem with people using religious words and symbols for what can only be described as religious experiences, even if the words and symbols lose some of their original connotations (e.g., associations with the supernatural) as they travel the cross-cultural distance from one tradition to another.

Commenter Piroisjapeth agreed, writing,

I find that as a non-theist, removing all spirituality from my vernacular created a hole in my ability to describe certain experiences in my life. I find it’s much easier to say “I felt God in that moment” than it is to try and describe the experiences in wholly naturalistic ways.

For all of religion’s faults, one thing it has given humanity is a rich language for interior experiences. I sometimes wonder if the ongoing secularization of our world (which is good!) has had the unintended consequence of stripping away language that helps us access and describe these interior states.

I struggle to articulate my mystical experiences without resorting to religious language. I’ve decided that, for me, that’s ok as long as I contextualize and clarify what I mean.

One reader on Discord objected to my use of the word “god”:

God is one I personal wouldn’t use myself as I think it can easily confuse a conversation. I personally try to avoid using words that society’s majority, if over hearing, could assume I am part of their group. God I largely just have an utter negative view on the word personally.

I respect this point of view, and it’s one I’ve heard from a good number of atheists: the use of religious language can confuse the listener. I think that is a fair concern, even though it’s not one I feel particularly strongly about.

I’m personally more concerned with finding common ground than setting myself apart. I share some pretty deep experiences with a lot of religious people: a love for religious language and symbolism, an awe at the deeper mysteries of reality, and a pursuit of inner peace and fulfillment. That’s enough common ground to develop a meaningful relationship with someone who has a completely different worldview from me. I think it’s easier to have productive disagreements once that common ground is established.

I’m a big hippy and pathologically agreeable, so this approach is easy for me. But it’s also part of my Satanic practice. My Satan was, after all, the great trespasser of arbitrary boundaries. I enjoy flummoxing people by trespassing culturally established norms (religious vs secular, spiritual vs materialist, etc.) This helps me embody the snake in the garden of Eden and encourage people toward greater self-knowledge.

Jack Holloway, the theologian I quoted in last week’s article, offered some excellent thoughts via email. He writes:

Ironically, I have the inverse experience, in that I grew up around a lot of Christians who were having religious experiences while I was having none. It was my lack of the experience of God that caused me to doubt my faith. And it was only when faith could mean something different to me that I was able to reconcile myself with religion. To this day, I rarely, if ever, have religious experiences. And the experiences I have don’t really inform my theology, except insofar as I try to make space in my life for openness to the holy and mindfulness of truths that run deeper than my day-to-day grind.

It’s wonderful to see your perspective though. I continually return to the concept of “depth.” Reality is always deeper than we can fathom, because our perspectives are always incomplete. So experiences that make that depth weigh upon us are, I think you’re right, sacred. It’s difficult to avoid religious/theological language when talking about such things. I appreciate your awareness of the complexities here. It’s not supernatural, but it’s also not reductively “naturalist.” (Spinoza, for one, despite being a rationalist, erased any distinction between the words “God” and “Nature.”)

It also makes me think of Wittgenstein and his critique of metaphysical language. He made the case that language is a game, and words only get their meaning from their use. So it matters less whether there is a thing “out there” which begs the name “God,” and more a question of what use the name “God” has, and whether such use corresponds to a reality.

This gets, once again, to the varieties of human experience. Some people have a harder time accessing certain internal states, and that’s ok. That doesn’t make them broken or stupid or flawed. It just means their brains are different. Meanwhile, there are perverts like me who get spiritually turned on by a moderately pretty sunset. That doesn’t make me better, smarter, or wiser. Regardless of how our brains are wired, though, we can, as Holloway points out, return continually to the depth and mystery of reality as a way to experience the sacred.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server. If your comment is excellent, I might feature it in a blog post. And, if you enjoy my work, please consider becoming a patron and signing up for my newsletter.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

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