Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Does ‘Longing for the Divine’ Mean?

            Very often in the various discussions that go on around the subject of gods and their existence, you will hear someone on the theistic side refer to a universal human longing for sanctity, the spiritual, the pure, and/or the divine. I have a confession to make about that: I haven’t the faintest clue what they’re talking about.

            It’s not merely that they usually bring this up in the context of claiming that the fact that this longing is a universal feature of human nature must somehow mean that the things we long for actually exist. It’s also not just that I don’t understand how they seem to make the leap to the idea that their god is the correct answer to this longing, while everybody else’s is incorrect despite the fact that they all seem to answer the desire equally well (“oh, sure, everyone longs for the divine! It’s just that when they think they’ve found it, they’re wrong, and when I think I’ve found it, I’m right”). No, it’s even more fundamental than that.

            I don’t know what they mean when they talk about sanctity, the spiritual, the pure, or the divine. I just don’t.

            Yeah, I know I can look up the dictionary definitions of those things, which seems to chase down a rabbit hole of interlocking definitions for things that don’t seem to reference anything real. I can get a sort of intellectual understanding of what people seem to mean when they talk about these things. But I don’t know what they are. Not in any real sense.

            Let’s just take one of those terms: sanctity. You look up the definition of that, you get referenced to things such as sacredness, holiness or divinity. Look up holiness, and you get referenced to things related to a gods or religions, or things dedicated to religious use, or things that are entitled to worship or veneration. Those are all human concepts. They aren’t an inherent property of anything. They’re just meanings that we choose to associate with certain social structures and emotional states. They’re not anything I long for.

            But I get the feeling that when religious people talk about these ideas, they use them as if they refer to something that has an actual, real manifestation beyond merely our emotions and expectations. As if, even if there were no human beings anywhere in the universe who would attach these meanings to things, some stuff could still have the property of being “sacred,” or “holy.” And I just… I don’t see it.

            If someone handed you a hunk of rock, telling you nothing about it, do you think you could sense some holiness about it? What if they told you that it was holy? Would that change your perception? Do you think the holy icons of other religions actually have some property of sacredness to them beyond the reverence that their devotees direct at them? Do you suppose they see any holiness in your sacred icons beyond the reverence you feel for them? Somehow, I don’t think so.

            As near as I can tell, these are just abstract ideas in which people invest certain emotions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that they can be meaningful or powerful, or that the emotions they engender are real. But they’re not actual things. Sure, I could point at a cross, and tell you it’s sacred. But only because I grew up in a culture that tells me it’s sacred; not because I can identify any property in it that makes it so. Certainly not because it possesses any property that I long for.

            When people make the claim that this longing is a universal feature of humanity, I just don’t think they’re telling the truth. Or, at best, they’re confusing a feature of human cultures with a feature of humans themselves. It seems to be the case that it’s common enough for people to have the emotional experiences and mental states associated with what we call the divine, and that they become sufficiently fascinated with them to explore them and to share the methods and stories they use to achieve them with others. They can be powerfully motivating experiences, and so once shared they seem to spread even to many people who wouldn’t otherwise have encountered them on their own. That doesn’t mean those people were longing for those things all along, though; just that it had a powerful effect once introduced. And it doesn’t indicate that any one set of stories or rituals that produces these experiences is any more true than any others that have the same effect.

            But it also seems that, for a certain percentage of the population, these abstractions don’t hold much allure, if any at all. That may be hard to comprehend, for someone who regards these experiences as powerfully real… or who simply want them to be. Or it may be that these claims of the universality of “longing for the divine,” are just convenient lies told in order to “other” us nonbelievers. Maybe it’s a mix. I don’t know, and I won’t claim to know. But when I hear a nonbeliever claim that they don’t know what those things are, I believe them. Because I’m in the exact same boat.

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