Author Archives: Jens Janson

God Matters, and the Question of God’s Existence is Irrelevant

The question of whether or not God exists has traditionally been the central focus of debates between theists and atheists, along with related epistemological questions such as under what conditions we are justified in believing in or rejecting belief in God. In the context of these debates, “belief in God” is generally understood in terms of belief in the existence of a more or less (though usually less) well-defined entity or being with a number of properties (e.g. “personal”, “conscious”, “supernatural”, “transcendent”, “omnipotent”, “omniscient”, “omnibenevolent”, “creator of the universe”, and so on). For both theists and atheists working with such a conception of God, the religious/anti-religious struggle becomes a matter of providing arguments and evidence either in favor of or against the existence of such an entity.

Considering the popularity of this approach to religion and God, the title of this text may at first glance seem somewhat paradoxical, or in any case a bit counterintuitive to a lot of people. After all, most theists and atheists seem to hold the question of whether or not God exists to be of utmost importance. In the end, isn’t the existence of God what religion is all about? The Syntheist response to this question is a resounding “No”. However, this does not mean that Syntheists need to dismiss the concept of God as unimportant.

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As I’ve pointed out before, the four key concepts of Syntheism—Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos and Syntheos—all have the word theos (i.e. god) embedded in them. This doesn’t mean that when we are talking about for example Pantheos, we are postulating the existence of a particular being with certain properties. Rather, the use of a term like Pantheos, which can be translated as “the Universe as God”, is meant to express a certain attitude—in the case of Pantheos, toward the Universe or Existence as such, which we choose to regard as divine. In a similar way, our use of the term Syntheos is meant to express a certain attitude toward our relationships and our longing to belong with the Other, which we too regard as divine.

Given that our use of the terms Pantheos/Syntheos etc. primarily expresses our commitment to regarding the Universe/our relationships etc. as divine, it makes no sense to ask whether or not Pantheos/Syntheos “exist”—to do so is to miss the point of our talk about God or the divine entirely. The appropriate question to ask is rather what role these concepts play in our lives; how our decision to regard the Universe and our relationships as divine and holy affects us.

Thus, from a Syntheist point of view, the question of whether or not God exists is irrelevant, because we do not conceive of God in terms of a particular being with certain properties; nor are we interested in fervently denying the existence of such a being. While Syntheism is sometimes described as the “religion of spiritual atheism”, this description is a bit misleading, for Syntheism aims to move beyond both theism and atheism. Rather than wasting our time arguing for or against the existence of God, we choose instead to appropriate the concept of God to suit our spiritual needs and desires. God thereby becomes a name for those aspects of reality that we choose to regard as divine and holy, and in this sense, God still matters as much as ever.

Embracing the Absurd: Camus and Syntheism

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus famously wrote that there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, namely, the problem of suicide, which basically amounts to the simple question: Is life worth living or not? While one need not necessarily agree with that this is the only truly serious philosophical problem, it is certainly the case that this problem in a sense precedes all other philosophical investigations. By turning your attention to another philosophical problem, you have already as it were answered this fundamental question—if not explicitly, then at least implicitly. In fact, in order to do anything (besides contemplating suicide or trying to commit suicide, I suppose), you must first admit that, at least for the time being, life is worth living.

If you admit that life is worth living, another question immediately arises: What makes it so? Several religions have traditionally answered this question with reference to a supreme creator God who, through His mere existence or His having a divine plan for everything, somehow ensures that our lives are inherently meaningful, and therefore worth living. Furthermore, the notion of an afterlife is often used to lend support to the conviction that life has an objective purpose. The logic is as follows: your life fundamentally matters in the grand scheme of things, because your actions in this life will determine what’s going to happen to you after you die; whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or in Hell, whether you will enjoy everlasting bliss or suffer everlasting torment.

Camus rejected the idea that life has an absolute, God-given meaning. However, the question that primarily interested him was not whether or not such a meaning exists, but rather, whether life can still be worth living, even if it has no absolute purpose, goal or meaning. While recognizing that humans have a longing for meaning, order and purpose, he could not help but to also acknowledge the apparent lack thereof, what he called “the unreasonable silence of the world.” This conflict between the human longing for meaning, and the seemingly indifferent and meaningless universe, gives rise to what Camus termed the Absurd.

How to deal with this realization of the basic absurdity of our existence? On Camus’ view, there are three possible responses:

  1. To commit suicide.
  2. To take a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” in other words, to give in to a religious belief in a reality beyond the Absurd (e.g. a transcendent God). (Camus dismissed this option as “philosophical suicide.”)
  3. To embrace the Absurd, i.e. to accept the absurdity of our lives, and to go on living in spite of it.

Camus defended the third option. In embracing the Absurd, the absurdist simultaneously affirms life and revolts against the conditions of his existence, fully aware of his own mortality and of the fact that all human endeavors are doomed, not exactly to fail, but to be completely forgotten:

To work and create “for nothing,” to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries—this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

How, then, should a Syntheist respond to this above-mentioned conflict between, on the one hand, our longing for meaning, and on the other hand, the “silence” of the universe? On my view, the proper Syntheist response is very much in line with Camus’: to embrace the Absurd; to view life as worth living in spite of the apparent lack of God-given purpose. However, Syntheism takes it one step further: rather than merely accepting this lack, we consciously choose to celebrate it as the very condition of possibility for the co-creation of values and meaning and for the freedom to decide what our lives ultimately are or should be about. To put it differently, it is precisely this lack of God-given meaning that enables the creative emergence of meaning through us. Since Syntheists hold the intersubjective generation of meaning and values to be a sacred activity, the death of God (and with it, the death of God-given Meaning with a capital M) is not an event to be mourned, but, on the contrary, an event to be affirmed and a cause for rejoicing if there ever was one.

Regarding the Word “God”

There has recently been a debate on our Facebook group about the use of the word “god” in relation to our four key concepts (Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos, Syntheos). As you may notice, these four terms all have the word theos, the Greek word for god, embedded in them. The question that sparked the debate was whether using this sort of language might generate unnecessary confusion, considering that:

1) For a lot of people, the word “god” already has a more or less firmly established meaning.
2) Our “gods” are not gods in any traditional sense of the word.

When we speak of, for instance, Syntheos, we are not referring to a supreme being of any kind. What Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos and Syntheos all denote are simply different aspects of reality that we consciously choose to regard as holy.

Now one can certainly formulate arguments against the use of the word “god” in the construction of our philosophy. I, however, will leave that task to someone else, and shall instead share some thoughts in favor of appropriating the word “god” for Syntheist purposes.

And God Said

First of all, I want to point out that “God” represents so much more than an obsolete metaphysical concept. Consider for a moment the role that God played in premodern Christian societies. In the premodern context, God was both the ground of everything, and the final goal of everything; the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. Every aspect of society revolved around God, and all art, music, architecture, poetry, etc. was invariably dedicated to God. For those of us who have grown up in a society where even the few self-proclaimed theists that remain seem to live etsi Deus non daretur—as if God does not exist—such a society is almost unimaginable. But that’s the way it was back then.

While the death of God certainly liberated us from various notions of the divine that were and are no longer credible (the transcendent God; the Absolute Monarch, Divine Judge and Cosmic Killjoy), the price that we had to pay for the Lord’s abdication was a high price indeed, namely, that as a society, we no longer have a common purpose. We live in a society that completely lacks direction and vision. We carry on with our lives and nobody knows why. The president of the United States still speaks of God and the Nation, but nobody believes in those ideas anymore.

Nobody believes in anything anymore. Nothing is holy. This is our predicament.

Now this is where Simon Critchley enters the picture and asks the exact right question: is it possible for us to construct a supreme fiction, that is, a fiction which we know to be a fiction, but in which we can nonetheless still believe? If so, what would that supreme fiction be based around? Since the transcendent God is no longer an option, the answer must be: whichever aspects of the immanent world, i.e. the universe, we can and want to regard as holy. Now, as Slavoj Žižek points out: if God the Father is dead, and the Son died on the cross, then the only person of the Trinity that remains is… the Holy Spirit! And what is the Holy Spirit? It is the community of believers united by love—or in Syntheist terminology: Syntheos, the god made manifest through our coming together, the god we create through our interactions.

Now the use of the word “god” does at least two things here:

1) It shows that we treat, in the case of Syntheos, our relationships with the same kind of gravitas that premodern Christian societies treated God. We are not just saying that we enjoy our relationships, or that we think they’re important. We are doing something much more radical than that: we are declaring our relationships to be divine, as sacred as anything gets! I for one can’t think of any other terms than religious terms like “god”, “divine” etc. that are able to sufficiently capture the full weight of we’re doing here.

2) It shows that we acknowledge that, contrary to what the New Atheists think, we need God—not necessarily the Abrahamic God, but something that serves the same purpose in our lives. Again, Critchley is spot-on in viewing modernity not in terms of a process of secularization, but as a series of metamorphoses of sacralization. We can’t help but to deify something. A hundred years ago, that something may have been the nation. Today, people worship their egos. The truth is that we will continue to sacralize one thing or another regardless of whether or not we use the term “god”, and whether or not we are conscious of the fact that we are always creating gods in this sense.