New Books in Secularism podcast on Inventing God
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hello everybody and welcome back to the new books in secularism I really want in the channel Carolyn Evans and today we'll be talking to dr. John Mills about his new book inventing God psychology of the links and the rise of secular spirituality John thank you so much for in June for doing this thank you for having so I love your CDs beginning interview by telling us a bit about yourself well yes I guess uh by I trade or probably profession I make my living as a psychologist but I'm also a philosopher having earned a PhD and that's in that field as well as a board-certified psychoanalyst and I'm also a professor at the graduate program in Toronto and I run a mental health corporation in Ontario which is my main main profession but helps me subsidize my scholarship as well sounds good how did you end up in with you well I think like anything else we are ultimately unconsciously drawn to why we go into a particular discipline so I've my in my youth I think I felt the need to go into psychology because I wanted to help people only only to realize I was there for my own selfish motives to understand my myself and and that led me into you know more of a love of knowledge and I ended up going into philosophy after that and not securing an academic job given how difficult the field is to get employed as in philosophy I fell back on my original you know training and that's where we're at today well it's nobody's business so my next question for you then is how did you end up coming to write this book in particular well again I believe that these things are ultimately psychologically motivated it wasn't something that I deliberately thought I was going to do at first but having my own personal experiences growing up I was you know I was raised as a Christian and so we also gravitated toward youth groups and my teens as a way around the church and way connecting with my peers right but by the time by the time I would say reach the age of reason the whole God pause it started to fall apart on me and I would say I spent most of my my 20s as an agnostic and then I realized and I just couldn't sit on the sense any longer and so I I think when I went into my my philosophy PhD studies is when I really started to come to terms with with this issue more head-on and yet at the same time I feel and felt internally divided because on one hand I think that there is a primal dimension to us that seeks out certain types of spiritual experiences if we want to call it that but what do you do when you can't buy into the religious doctrine that's grafted on our own internal NEADS or potions so I think that's why I gravitated toward metaphysics that probably is a substitute for religion unconsciously and and through that I decided I really need to take a long look at the matter and and started to think that I'm going to then address this as a more you know philosophical topic and which led to eventually writing a book excellent yeah I do not unde enta fie with a lot of those same feelings I grew up in a religious family as well and we're also a good concluding to just not really buy it so so yeah that makes a lot of sense to me so in your book are you begin by being concerned to differentiate between the critique of religion of the social practice and the questioning of the existence of a God or God so anyone is just out 1/4 onion cent difference there well yes I think I'm not so much interested in the question of religion as I am in the concept of God and I don't think the two are the same even though it's easy for I think for people to conflate them but I also don't want to ontological II separate the two for instance the question or the predication of God can be entirely different from a religious practice however most religious practices or faiths or organized you know modes of religious being particularly in the model seasons necessarily have to have a Godhead but there are other forms of religions and that don't necessarily have a God I mean certain aspects of Buddhism or Chantel or other other types of non monotheistic Abrahamic religions so I like to separate the two least categorically and the book is more about the ontological question of God's existence whatever however we want to define what what that is yes excellent and imagine if in your opinion at their current body of a Fiat literature tends to overlook the psychological aspects that give rise to people's sensation other need for God yes if you have you read within the last you know decade or so the New Atheism literature which really hit me you know with the trade presses hit the public in a wave with Richard Dawkins and sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens exactly exactly even though there's very fine arguments and a consciousness-raising aspect to this if you if you read the work really there's no engagement with the psychological dimensions and so I felt I felt that illuminating the you know the internal psychodynamic parameters of the need or wish to believe was lacking and that's why I feel I have something novel to contribute to the discourse excellent ok and you also comment that you feel that scholarly religious studies often take God's innocent existence for granted rather than attempting to grapple with how an argument could incredibly made in Chapter one you address the notion of God as a metaphysical question and lay out your argument for why as you put it the God posit is a fair hypothesis can you explain that to a little more huh well yeah it's a it's a complex matter so the thought that well I was struck by the theological literature and the you know the philosophy of religion literature where we can simply presume the very thing in question in all of our writings and and so it might in my research at least it seems like even questioning whether or not we can predicate God stopped with with you know st. Thomas Quietus and so in his Summa theologia is where he sets out certain types of arguments for the existence of God and then goes about to try to argue for that matter it's as if the religious institution the academics theology have just presumed the very thing that one really has the burden to prove and so I I want to revisit that age old medieval where the question stopped about a thousand years ago and can start with basics yeah that makes a lot of sense to you also get into the question of how various religions have understood very quote person of God and you suggest that these interpretations arise in part from their unique context and the influence of their unique environmental stressors well yes the the notion the notion of that God is a person is very much it's very monotheistic but it's typically Christian and but but I should back up you know the whole the whole what upsets the whole stage for any discussion on God is how we want to define God and often you know often we can get off on the wrong on the wrong foot or we won't be on the right page if we don't agree to a operational definition of what we mean by God and so for simplicity sake it seems that most of the monotheistic religions would want to endorse God as a Supreme Being Supreme agent and creator of the universe that is a Supra personal trance objective supernatural entity and and then there are certain elements that get tacked on to that such as Omni perfections on the apt review – things like this and one of them is that that God must be not an impersonal force or source or entity but a personal one and we see that in you know in all particularly the Christian traditions so even you know from you know Augustine to Aquinas to Anselm to Calvin and to contemporaries such as alvin plantinga swin berg things like people like this in the field of philosophy so if if one doesn't want to buy into that discourse then we're talking about God in a different way for instance you know people can define God in very relativistic ways I mean to such a degree that God becomes whatever one wants it to be and that I just really don't see that is the same kind of definition that most people meaning the the masses do as god I mean God has to be a person in their mind or a personhood or an agent because why would we worship an impersonal force in the cosmos and however there are people like you know Bentley hard who once or Karen Armstrong we want to look at God as being itself well when you look at God is being or in a naturalised way then to me that's really not God I mean it doesn't have the same level of exaltation and so it depends upon whom I interlock or is or who I'm discourse scene with if we greet if we can agree upon a certain way of viewing God it usually helps in the discussion but but I would say that the pedestrian notion that most people think of is God is a supernatural you know ontological being that that has brought the universe and existence into being yes s was my experience is well that is definitely promoted that the notion of God is a very personal one you're encouraged to have a personal relationship with God this is the kind of language that has but I think also with that stamps on Jesus himself and the Bible I think he encouraged seeking of God the Father in a very personal way so when you put it in a light of the psychological factors such as that she outlined in your book it makes a lot of sense why that would appeal to people and I think you know why it would make the religion is so attractive to people which David longevity they so yeah very interesting to look at it from a psychological perspective so see you focus on ways in which the concepts of gods emerge in response to the psychological factors until they're saying first to tackle the effects of the positive representations of God as in like God as an idealized to wish the siblings and how did the sex people psychologically you know I didn't say that real well me don't say that again so it's in Chapter three you first tacitly accept the deposited representations of God such as an idealized wish fulfillment and how these ideas accept people psychologically for instance how the notion you defend yourself from critical analysis and how it can be used on a broader institutional level as a leader in speller welcome clearly you know God representations are are multiple and they are very idiosyncratic in many ways to the person who are the believer who is in relation to their own internal relationship to that internalized representation and so what representations really are are no images and interjects and emotional properties that are you know internalized in us some very you know ever since we're basically born and and become organized psychically and and typically on unconscious Stimme Adak and socio symbolic and emotional levels and the longer of course we live and experience the world we will incorporate and internalize more and more representations we first must assume that the most emotionally dominant and important types of internalized representations are based upon our our parents or their surrogates and hence they become the exemplary prototypes or models by which we then would construct broader social social representations meaning by that you know how do we relate to certain images certain ideologies certain values certain feeling states that we placed into an internalized object and so these for many people of course in their upbringing and their education the notion of God as a object representation is supposed to be an idealized one a positive one it signifies what we would like there to be and that is a perfect loving than benevolent beneficent you know greater so to speak that you know in many ways this is kind of like us with a small child wishes or feels toward their parents you know is that you know my mother my father are great and handsome here know is that we had a Supra Supra signifying we have the Lubar father and hence of course when we have the personification of all the things that we value love acceptance validation an inner sense of peace and tranquility suggest this is when I would interject not like here on earth so yeah two two echo your point that these are the positive valence is that that you know good representations concern fast that's right and you also laugh you also make an argument for how believers use their babies and face they're just a feeling of their belief and faith they try to posit as being evidence itself some pretty invisible guy yeah that's that's interesting too because on one hand especially my profession and my you know my humanistic attitude toward people I'm really not in the business of wanting to negate their internal experiences on the other hand you know the more rational or logical or philosophical aspect of my my mind will want to ask for some justification or for evidence and so it is an interesting dialectic that gets played out on one hand you have people like in the tradition of Aquinas or Calvin where the notion that that God is in us and God is actually implanted in us the knowledge of quote his existence and this is typically a faculty or what we can call a census and invent a taught us that we intuitively have a sense of God's existence and then you have contemporaries like Alvin Plantinga who as a notion of reformed epistemology where he would say that the belief in God is entirely natural its intuitive with rash and you don't have to have any evidence or argument for whatsoever this is where you know this is where more of a scientific or rational empirical you know stance would be challenged but if we were to set that aside for a moment you know some of the oldest metaphysical taxes that exist are in the Upanishads and they some of the early verses you know in Indian philosophy Hindu philosophy is is to posit the notion of a you know ultimate reality and that people have a need for that ultimate reality they want to embrace it they want to experience it and that it's the reason why we even have the desire to embrace it is that it must be already there or hence why would we even want it of course this begs the question on what constitutes psychological motivations but if we think of Aristotle's you know opening line and his metaphysics that you know all men by nature desire to no one could claim that that's a natural faculty a naturalised psychological faculty so what what is the believer actually getting that when they say I know that God exists because I feel it internally and on one hand I am very sympathetic that something's touching that person that's beautiful for them that's the numinous for them and meaningful and who might come in and start you know Hachette in that away with my you know Western logical you know questions on the other hand when we do make grandiose metaphysical statements such as that we we have to have some the burden of proof is on the individual to try to justify that the belief in or the the knowledge of or the certainty of that there is this independent ontological being that exists outside of my mind let alone how would we histologic even know that given that everything we experience is cognitively mediated psychologically mediate so we can't even really have a discussion about what exists independent of our mind but if we even infer it that's exactly what I think these are doing that God has to exist independent of our consciousness of human beings and hence there's the automatic you know assumption in a metaphysical realism so this is where the even the root lies to refined and reformed epistemology would at least have to attend to but in the end they may say and with you know with light blasting so to speak that this is real to me and this is what makes me feel good despite the fact that you know we open ourselves up to the possibility of a radical subjectivism or egoism or relativism or or whatever one wants to say right one of the points you need that I found really interesting is you explain how the psychological processes that allow one's ways – in fact they strengthen in the faces they absolutely evident so that absence that face I suppose actually the less evidence there is has this reverse defensive giving them even stronger faith and stronger belief yeah well let me try to be sympathetic to that but first let me be the skeptic that how is it that we're going to imbue something that we cognitively pause it and all of a sudden the idea becomes an ontological object in its own right that exists out there independent of us and I don't need any evidence for it because somehow I just feel it into in it it so therefore it is well we just can't we just can't posit something into existence we can't think something into being into actuality so I mean existence is not a predicate you know we you know no predicating something is is is something that we have to demonstrate through evidence and so given that God has not manifested that has not appeared in some form because is therefore not become actual the believer then has to cognitively realign themselves with certain justification with the police so the belief again could be simply a feeling a resonant state and intuition and that's enough for them that I can't explain it in words I won't even try but nevertheless it is a divine you know unum Mystica I mean why I'm feeling in communion with whatever the Godhead is to be or the presence is to be however you know again there's other more convoluted arguments such as the reality of divine hiddenness so God doesn't have to appear it doesn't have to manifest doesn't have to have any kind of naturalized signs in the universe but God is in fighting God doesn't need to appear now we now there's all kinds of need to attach certain psychological motives to God's non manifestation which of course is simply a projection of our own minds onto our experiences or ideas how can it be other than that given that everything is psychologically mediated on some level of course you think that some do you think that that kind of responsive increase more recently because I'm just thinking that you probably don't have to look too far back into our history to trying to time when people believe they did see evidence of God more frequently because they just couldn't interpret weather patterns or other random activity or encounters they might add that they might ascribe to a divine sign so which I think these days may be much less inclined to do just because the public is generally more educated with a better understanding of science and weather patterns for one thing so do you think that that kind of habit is on the rise and you notice any kind of a change in them well just looking at popular culture I don't think we're hearing a lot about people talking about divine interventions and miracles that are happening to them so much now I'm going I'm not in touch with that so much as just a belief just so much as the resurgence of you know let's say fundamentalism in the United States traction of course you will see this in other parts of the world in Islam and to of course the sugar and of religion when you look at the extreme forms such as terrorist groups that are happening but that's not really the point the point is it many times in the past of course people who don't have access to understanding natural phenomenon would be more inclined to import a certain certain type of hermeneutic or a psychological interpretation that they may not even be aware of but just simply accept as a sign of a divinity and I you can you can understand how that would you know be a mode of explanation because people who don't have access to knowledge or our knowledge was more limited in terms of our early evolution as a culture and civilization that they would gravitate toward these explanations you even have you know evolutionary psychology and the psycho biology of religious beliefs you know theories that would want to even explain why would people think this way such as that when we are you know out in nature or in our own you know offices or whatever it may be and we we might perceive or miss perceive or see things that we think we feel a presence here may be explained least on some level that were equipped with some agency detecting mechanism which is rather fascinated fascinating that we would somehow projects our teleology into our environment and we see movement and we see images and then we are quick to want to integrate this into some meaningful narrative or a cognitive structure that allows us to function in the moment and if anyone has been paranoid or or fearful or been out in the woods and you imagine things to me that kind of helps explain of how we might have overactive imaginations of work yes yeah it is really done because that's true when you're in a situation where human beings always have that propensity to find a pattern putting a story where there isn't necessarily right so now that's good makes a lot of sense it was kind of leads into my next question you talked about how these notions of the invisible yet all-knowing ever-present being can conditionally have a looming negative psychological impact beginning as early as early childhood yes I really I think this is a contextual or contingent question it depends upon where one's raised how they were raised what were they told and of course the you know miss abusive teachings can lead all kind of psychological you know conflicts and unnecessary suffering specifically if you're being you know threatened or made to feel afraid or not safe let alone when you import certain value judgments onto your sense of self as being flawed or sinful or in violation of God's will or are a number of things of course seeing people and you know in psychological treatment I of course will see a certain you know certain aspect of the population that have usually come in for reasons other than let's say the norm of the normative population and and some have been presented with extremely traumatized you know experiences of the teachings of their family and their the church to the point where it's you know created a crippling state of affairs in their mind where they're internally divided where they feel horribly guilty and ashamed at the same time extremely paranoid and fearful of vengeance and and you know a great a great deal of unnecessary suffering because of teachings well well to move on to chapter four are you go on to talk about different socio-economic conditions around the world they tend to lend themselves to their atheism or religiosity and the positive perspective in being secular humanism and spirituality has to offer can you tell us a little bit about them why sure what's very interesting fact from a epidemiology studies is that some of the most poorest impoverished uneducated lacking any resources I mean most resources that we just take the granite have some of the highest faith-based beliefs and practices in the world and and yet some of the most educated wealthy industrialized democratic and educated population have higher rates of suicide who identified themselves as atheists on the one hand they have better qualities of life on the other hand there's some element of internal depletion and despair however let's say take certain nations let's say in Africa where the most horrendous social conditions exist had the highest amount of belief and the less amount of suicide so it tells us from certain just certain parts of the world how the need need to believe is so much higher when one is you know suffering when one has less when one is impoverished when they're under adversities and in some ways it's not so surprising because there's more of a stronger defensive process in people the need for hope the need for redemption the need the promise of when this life suffering is done I'm going to get you know what I feel I always wanted and deserve whereas more non-believing free thinking you know agnostic atheist secular humanistic folk whatever the hybrid they might fall into they have to kind of face life on their own terms there is nothing more than this you have to make life what it is and and so secular humanism is is becoming more popular in certain parts of the world and I think this is highly correlated with democratization with education with culture with financial you know financial success could speak even Aristotle would say you really don't have time to lead a contemplative and virtuous life unless you have money you have to have something in order to prosper so but but secular humanism is interpreted differently by you know any anybody who identifies in that group just like certain reformed religious you know institutions would so what does it mean it's hard to really say what it means for everybody but more of a humanist attitude is certainly going to be based upon a naturalised view of the world not a super super naturalized or theistic view that however let's say we don't believe or don't presume that there is empty anything and other than the National rule in which we find the humanists is inspired by art human compassion and ethics and living a living in the here and now for people as well as being informed by reason and science and in a nutshell it's like we don't need the big guy in the sky in order to live a good life and the good life should be enjoyed here and it should be shared and it should be cultivated with some our fellow human beings with and that's an end in itself exactly um you also use the phrase in search of the newness which correcting the silence and the various wrong offense anything aspect of a bit basically the Newlands refers to a healthy person sexually sorry refers to and healthy pursuit of self-actualization and secular morality so can we do a search how you say that search for the numinous I'm looking well I'll try the the notion of the new I like the term the numinous it has a certain emotional appeal to me it might not mean much to others but but you know it comes from Rudolf Otto yeah those are theologian and philosopher a German who was very influential in writing in the you know the early 20th century a book called the idea of the holy and despite his theology he's talking about a particular affective and emotional experience that one has in in relation to what they call the divine we can see this coming the notion of the part the notion of Newman coming from Roman cult philosophy where there is some notion of a divinity principle that animates the cosmos however what I'm trying to get out more in the sense of there is this um you know aspect of sense of awe that we have in relation to some some type of experience we may call it transcendental we may call it you know the sublime we might call it spiritual but what used to be called religiosity and and I'm not opposed to that term meaning spirit I'm not opposed to that or the notion of soul given that this historically comes from the notion of psyche and that that which animates us so the notion of animus is the animator in us is what makes us feel alive it's what gives our sense of self value and so what what is it what we talked about the numinous usually these are aspects of experience that are not necessarily normal but they could be ordinary they could be ordinary feelings of transcendence or they or they could have a more of an extra emotional quality that's attached to it and usually it's one that has a sense of urgency to it and and and also that there's an element of mystery and element of suspense and an element of fear that's associated which gives you a heightened sense of arousal and so those are the more profound luminous experiences and of course they are self determined when I speak of self-actualization I'm really meaning a process a process of self-discovery but you're um called it an individual process where we're having to undergo our own self articulated path and that's to be defined by you only you it's a radically subjective Enterprise pursuit of a numinous yes excellent so you feel that beckon Lilia interesting need people have for some element of spirituality in their life but it's flexible you say that's right yes I do in many ways it is entirely in idiosyncratic but at the same time it can be identified in certain patterns or in certain identifications and other can share their shared meaning about certain events when people say you know spirituality is really about the quality of lived experience it's really about what I want or feel or you know I was pining for I'm seeking out ultimately I don't know what that is I'm just you know fumbling to ecstasy so to speak and I'm gonna hopefully I'll land on it someday but you know it's the pursuit account when it'll were there any other clean sound from the book that I think that you wanted to have a chance to continent well I think there's so many we've covered a lot of ground here hopefully the message I think a bit certain overall messages here it's that despite despite that the fact that I don't believe the Supreme Being exists and and despite the fact that we have certain psychological needs and motives and conflicts both for and against beliefs and that they often serve many overdetermined motives and and you know desires and wishes that in the end i think one one needs to be in touch with that aspect of themselves that that wants to feel more alive and feel more in touch with you know with with the spiritual and one does not have to have any belief whatsoever in a transcendent entity in order to achieve that in here and now and and ultimately you know this makes kind of life an existential quest and you know spirituality can be achieved in very concrete ways through the way we wish to live our life whether that be living life artfully we are you know developing a sense of ethical self-consciousness that we have toward our environment to our ecosystems to our societies to the concrete human beings and people that we encounter every day our families our children our friends the notion of friendship there's like so very few people that actually have true friendship if you look at it it they seem to be more about social acquaintances and appearances but but not in a really deep lived and love feeling then the notion of pursuing the you know whatever floats your boat and if it has value to you that's important and so I think this is where both the person of root or the religious as well as the secular person share a common denominator and that is what ultimately they feel and the quality of their their live existence is ultimately what matters I think that's such a positive wonderful line you note to end on and because I just think that that's such a good message for anybody who is trying to find their way out of other their within or religious practice that they might find a weight or a bit of a burden on you so thank you so much for that and thank you John for giving us your time today so before we go I would need you to tell us a little bit about what you're currently working on well sure my next book is also a grave matter in Dundee it's on the question of human extinction no because I'm very concerned about the way the world is these days everything from our you know our global ecological crisis with way we are destroying our planet to you know the simple bystander defective we're doing nothing as nations to subvert this disaster that we all see is coming and people are living in a denial or their dissociating from these realities it says if we know they're there but I just can't deal with it and not to mention the fact that we're heading toward a severe overpopulation boom where we'll have predicted about ten billion people on this planet in our lifetime where resources will be much more scarce in terms of water in terms of food land to grow food land cook people not to mention the anatomy of evil and and all the human aggression that we see being played out throughout the globe that it really is an ominous time and I'm pessimistic in the sense that we may be living in the end times and so not in a biblical sense but a sense that deserves my fingers in serious study one might call it the humanist version of the apocalypse sorry okay well my goodness maybe we'll have a chance to me again and discuss that one as well so I want to thank you very much for being on the show today and I really enjoyed it I hope you'll come back and into very much John goodbye thank you

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