Tag Archives: Syntheos

What god would you like to have today, Sir/Madam?

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

Research has shown that our brains are predisposed for belief in god(s) [1]. Stephen Pinker’s theory is that it’s an unwanted side-effect of our instinct for grammar [2]. Richard Dawkins theorises that it’s genetic drift, ie the mutation(s) that led to the survival benefit of brains capable of symbolic thought is greater than the cost of an erroneous belief in deities [3].

Now when we understand this we can stop this childish nonsense of belief in god(s). Can’t we? No. For all our capacity of rational thought, we’re still fundamentally emotionally driven beings. No matter how much you understand why you are sad, this fact alone won’t dispel the sadness. Just wanting to be happy, however rational this may be, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Understanding that there is no god doesn’t magically fill in the empty god-shaped hole in our atheist’s brains.

If we’re stuck with belief in god(s), we might as well pick a god or gods that work for us. Since we, Syntheists, are aware all gods are invented, and are therefore infinitely malleable, they can take any shape or form we desire or need. With one minor caveat. We can’t make them actually exist.

How about an infinitely loving god, who listens to us, and cares and wipes our tears when we’re sad. A god who we can turn to for protection in times of need? But love has a physical manifestation. Yes, it’s an emotion. It’s a very strong emotion. Of all our emotions, love is maybe the strongest emotion that has been programmed into our genes. It’s the emotion we’re genetically predisposed to yearn more than any other. Love isn’t only kind words and a pat on the head. Love is among other things altruistic acts and for people to go out of their way to help each other. Not just kind words. An imaginary god, no matter how hard we believe in it, won’t do shit for you. It really doesn’t matter how much in pain you are or how afraid you are, apart from kind words, no god is going to come and help you.

If you think I’m only having a go at monotheism. I’m not. The same criticism can be made against most gods humanity has ever created. We’re all insecure to some degree. We all have an urge to be taken care of by somebody who understands us. But this type of god will turn you into a passive child, unable to help yourself. And if your passivity ends up ruining your life, it’ll turn you into a victim. No matter how common it is, I think faith in this type of god is wholly destructive. It’s painting over the cracks instead of fixing the underlying emotional problems in your life. Faith in god can only positive if that faith motivates you and give you the strength to fix what needs fixing.

“God helps those who help themselves.”

-Sophocles (409 BC)

How about gods that are facets of your personality. These are the types of gods found in Buddhism. When you want to be more decisive and aggressive you worship the god of that type. [4]. It relies on identifying with the deity and taking on their facets. And in effect bringing out those aspects in ourselves. To aid the worshipper they’ve been given names, clothing, personalities, specific prayers and so. A plethora of tactile and mnemonic aids in reminding the worshipper who they now are. The handy thing about these is that it’s thousands of years of Buddhist tradition and ritual to draw upon. Even though our modern world is much different from the world of Gautama Buddha, our brains are the same. And we have the same emotional needs as they did. Whether the Buddhist gods really exist out there or are only figments of our imagination, Buddhism is silent on. But does it really matter? Does the fact that us atheists use a god that other people may actually believe really exists take away from it’s usefulness? Of course it doesn’t. Please, feel free to use these if they work for you. Or use them as templates and change them. Wouldn’t it be fun to worship a god of initiative and action called Sparky?

I’ve played around with the idea of god(s) and have come to use a very rudimentary type of god. I’ve found they help me the best in times of mental weakness. They’re a kind of imaginary parent. Or to use Freudian terms, they’re facets of my super-ego I’ve broken out and made into concrete mental images.

I only have two gods in my life at the moment. Treating them as sacred is the key to their success in helping me. The first is the god of silence. I allow this god to fill me when I need to sill my mind or just relax. Without this god I have trouble winding down. I’m not naturally inclined for lying back and relaxing. For me I have to force myself. Therefore I need this god in my life. By keeping it sacred I refrain from pushing it away and filling my mind again. This god works for me because this is something I need in life.

I have not given this god a name. Which in itself is a mnemonic as to what this god is for. It’s the opposite of the god of labelling, understanding, thinking, controlling, manipulating and so on. This is the god of letting go. It’s possibly also the god of deep breaths. I discovered this god when writing this article and has been with me since [5].

The other god I have found I call “get on with it”. When my dead gaze stares back at me from the monday morning mirror, this is the god that appears. This god often pops up when I’m doing everything else but what I’ve set myself as a goal to do. This god is impatient and usually rolls it’s eyes at me. Each time he appears I know it’s right. And keeping this god sacred has helped me with, among other things, getting to work on time.

These little friends are always with me nowadays. And they truly have been like friends to me. Imaginary friends. Much like I imagine a Christian feels when they feel the presence of God. But it’s not like I have conversations with this god. All conversation with these gods has always been decidedly one-sided. Which of course is only to be expected of a wholly invented god. But they have, in spite of their non-existence, still managed to make my life better and have helped and guided me to be a better person.

Another member of the Stockholm congregation, Joel Lindefors, also has been experimenting with using gods. He has found other gods than me useful to him.

His first is a god he calls, Pantheos or Amor  Fati, the god of acceptance. To understand one’s own little part in it all. To look up at the sky or out over the ocean.

The god of strength. To use when Joel feels small, worthless and in the grips of overwhelming fear. He calls this god Entheos or Syntheos. Syntheos is the god that is evoked when among other people. While Entheos is the god of renewal and change. To find the strength within to grow and adapt, to beat one’s demons. These are two aspects of the same god Joel uses.

If you have gods that have helped you that I haven’t thought of, please feel free to add them in the comment section below.

I’ll end this with saying a prayer to the god of coming up with clever endings to articles. Let’s just call her Fluffy. Yes, I invented her just now. I will no doubt invent more as needed.

Amen

[1] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm

This is just one example of many

[2] http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2004_10_29_religion.htm)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion.

[4] http://www.iloveulove.com/spirituality/buddhist/buddhistdeities.htm

[5] http://syntheism.org/index.php/2013/12/athea/

 

On Surface Tension and the Fathoming of the Depth Beneath the Storm to Come

There is a stone I wish to throw in the pond, wondering what ripples will be brought back to me.

Concerning the surface tension of names and the depths that rears beneath them, the trinitary concepts of Being, Nothing and the movement of Difference are standard, easily hooked up onto the traditions of philosophy from Parmenides to post structural process philosophers. The point where there is a storm brewing is Utopia – the Kingdom Come – whose injunction has found a peculiar home on the horizon, exactly by being both obscured by the cynicism of our age fueled by the doubt that makes us question the very goodness of our place in the world, but also by being this ephemeral thing over on the edge of possibility. Here the concept is actually mysterious and not clear-cut while its name is temptingly and trickingly clear.

Here the concept cannot be contained by an abstraction as its content wanders towards the very possibility of community and asks for a concrete realization of exactly the space in between being and its possible not-yet future that hovers over and beyond it. It is exactly in case of Syntheos/Utopia that we can fathom the risk involved, as the idea or fantasy of the possible has been for millennia distracting communities from the here and now as they attempt to reify their fantasy, obscuring contact with being through their single minded focus on a specific mode of the possible future.

Naming these ‘gods’ and worshipping them is such a small step, compared to the problems that hover above us in the task of actually plotting the complex reality of the intricate communities that are motivated by myriads of vectors of desire that are implanted by the ancient regime of hyper-capitalism, and the question of how they can be inverted/converted/ecoverted into Utopia.

The congregation and mass itself plays on the surface tension wrought by the rearing depths of our mind and the spirit machines that fuel our desires. Utopia itself being the remnant of a promise intrinsic to the Abrahamic religions that made us forgive the problems of the current in expectancy of the kingdom come that would baptize reality in the injunction of the deluge of grace. In this sense Syntheism is formally identical to this grand historical movement of expectation for the future.

But how exactly is the waiting converted into action instead of pacifying us like it has done throughout the ages?

Syntheism in its co-creative rituals and Bacchanals have got the first miracle of Jesus down: turning water into wine, bringing people together in a new way, high on the contemplation of the possible. But what about kicking the money lenders out of the temple? A sermon on the mount? Shaming the Pharisees by revealing their fetish of law? And the longwinded battle of conversion through letters akin to the apostle Paul? These moments brought down a spiritual empire and instated a new one, pointing to the revolutionary character of the movement. It brought with it a concrete dialectic that charged the fort of the old, and converted it.

The devotional ritual for Syntheos should thus be (r)evolutionary in action, not merely some formal procession where attention to an abstraction is enacted.

It is these questions that lurk beneath the surface, fueling the storm that is brewing around the world. It is pointing us towards an meteorology of the spiritual-political-industrial complex and the search for the butterfly that is able to flap its wing in exactly the right way to make the Storm come.


Image: The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan in Whose Wreathings are Enfolded the Nations of the Earth, circa 1805-9, William Blake 1757-1827.

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.

awe

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.

Overcoming grief

_gorilla_grief

Allwetter Zoo, a mother holding her dead son

 When it comes to overcoming grief and emotional pain, it turns out, humans are not all that unique. It’s true that we have a wide variety of methods with which to flee our troubles. Examples are: work, drugs, sex, relationships, hobbies, physical exercise etc. But when it comes to what we need to do to face them and move on we are all remarkably similar. 

When I had a painful loss in my life I couldn’t deal with alone, I came in contact with the research of John W James and Russell Friedman of the Grief recovery Institute. In order to better help people in their practice they did extensive research and identified several discrete steps all grieving need to take to overcome their pain. I’ve come to recognise these principles in various religious practices. It seems like major religions have already figured these steps out, if not in theory, at least in practice, and are all acting on them:

James’ and Friedman’s steps to overcoming emotional pain:

1. Acknowledge that you have issues and define what they are. When we feel emotional discomfort our first instinct is to avoid the pain. Instead try to allow yourself to feel what you feel.

2. Accept that you have part of the responsibility to overcome your grief.

3. Identify your thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings you haven’t expressed yet.

4. Express those feelings in a safe environment.

5. If you’ve been honest with yourself and done the work you should be able to say goodbye to the pain. Find strength and joy by this. Learn and grow.

Intellectualising emotional pain, by itself, never works. Understanding why you are sad won’t make the pain go away. Feelings have their own rational and rarely cooperate. Contrary to popular belief time doesn’t heal all wounds. Keeping busy and trying to ignore the pain will only serve to prolong the pain. In time we may push the pain into our subconscious, make it part of our personality. But until we dare face it and deal with it, it will linger, draining us and dragging us down.

In order to feel safe and be relaxed enough to face our fears, honestly share and be open with how we feel we need a people around us we feel safe with. We need to feel respected and cared for. We need to be able to weep together and laugh together. The mending of broken hearts requires hard work and is difficult to do alone. This is the kind of basic unit around which all religious communities are built.

So what about other people’s sorrow?

If we want to be part of the supportive community for others we need to know what to do. Best advice. Don’t over-think it. Just say “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how it must feel for you. How have you been doing?”. It communicates that you care, that you’re not about to belittle their pain or give them unwelcome “expert” advice and it gives them the opportunity to talk to you about it without it coming off as prying.

The mortician Caitlin Doughty has a witty and fun vlog about her job and death called Ask a Mortician. Here’s a good video from her on the topic of grieving.

 Rituals to help us overcome emotional pain

Burial rituals are designed as a sacred space where the grieving are given a safe space to express their pain, say words they feel need to be said to the deceased and a to take a final farewell. They all contain the above steps and components.

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Shinto burial ritual

  1. “yukan,” washing the corpse, the family washes the deceased.
  2. “kiyu hokoku,” The family announces the death through prayer
  3. “makura naoshi no gi,” the deceased is placed with the head facing north.
  4. Food, sword and a knife is left of the the deceased
  5. “nokan no gi,” the placemend of the deceased in the coffin.
  6. “kyuzen nikku,” daily offerings to the deceased at the altar.
  7. Announcement of the return of the spirit.
  8. “bosho batsujo no gi,” earth purification ceremony of the grave site.
  9.  “Kessai,” priest’s purification
  10. “tsuya sai,” the wake
  11. “senrei sai,” transfer of the spirit, a priest transfers the deceased’s spirit from the body into a wooden tablet. The tablet is held over the deceased while the priest says a prayer.
  12. “settai,” refreshments, food cooked and is served to the mourners.
  13. “Shinsosai,” the funeral service. The room is purified, offerings are made and eulogies are given by the priests.
  14. “kokobetsu shiki,” farewell ceremony, mourners file out past the deceased and say farewells.
  15. “hakkyu sai no gi,” the preparation of the coffin for removal to the grave site.
  16. “soretsu,” funeral procession.
  17. “hakkyu-go batsujo nogi,” purification of the house, priests and relatives purify the house with cleaning after the coffin leaves. The funeral altar is removed and a new altar is set up.
  18. “maisosai,” burial rites, family and close friends assemble at the grave site or crematorium with the body. More offerings are placed with the coffin.
  19. “kotsuage,” picking up the bones, bones are removed from the crematorium ash and put in a vase.
  20. “Kika sai,” coming home, step 20, is the return of the ashes to the home. The family thanks the people who helped with the funeral and places the ashes in the family shrine.

Priests have in all times been trusted persons to safely share with. Ideally, it’s a person who exists apart from everyday life only to be a spiritual guide, to share with and who can be trusted never to abuse their position. We don’t have priests in Syntheism. But we do have a community and the shared wisdom collected in all the world’s religions.

Priest hears confession durng 2012 men's retreat at New York high school

Catholic confession

It’s important to actually say goodbye. Even though Syntheists don’t believe in an afterlife, the soul, ghosts or anything supernatural you still remember those you have lost. You know them, their mannerisms and the kinds of things they would say. You can still talk to them in your head, feel their presence. I’m sure we’ve all had such solo dialogues. In such an internal discussion you can admit things, forgive them or tell them things you need them to hear, and it’ll still have an impact on you as if they really were in front of you.

If you have unfinished business with somebody you have lost, you can use this method to settle things. Say it out loud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Whatever you need to say, say it and it can help to heal your wound. For psychological reasons, saying it out aloud with trusted people present is much more effective for healing this kind of pain, than just thinking it in your head. Community and the support from others is critical. We all need an understanding voice that listens.

Will the circle be unbroken (written by Ada R. Habershon). Sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon. A Christian lament for a dead mother

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1046549/A-mothers-grief-Heartbroken-gorilla-cradles-dead-baby.html

http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com

http://www.rotunda.ie/MaternityCare/MaternitySupportServices/Bereavement.aspx

http://people.opposingviews.com/20-steps-shinto-funeral-2693.html

http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/blog/2010/Mar/11/buddhist-perspective-grieving-roshi-joan-halifax/

http://www.catholic.org/prayers/confession.php

Synthea

“The falling leaves drift by my window

The falling leaves of red and gold

I see your lips the summer kisses

The sunburned hands I used to hold

 

Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all my darling

When autumn leaves start to fall”

/Jacques Prévert

 

Coping with great loss

The heat of the summer nights are fading. Coats are clenched to the body. The pensive beauty of autumn is here. Any stable state will eventually change. At some point bliss will end. Such is the nature of existence. Any outlook denying that the good times will end will assuredly be a fearful life. Learning to accept, endure and overcome our inevitable losses and failures are lessons we all will learn, sooner or later. Sooner is better.

We are now transitioning into Synthea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the autumn equinox and winter solstice Syntheos. It is from Synthesis, the Greek word for “bringing together”. Undoubtedly the greatest asset of any religious community has always been in times of personal crisis, helping us deal with loss, being there for us when we need it the most.

This season we will focus on endings, death, transformation, change and ridding oneself of the old and redundant

Synthea, autumn equinox

Philosophy and science teaches us that the world we have in our minds, our memories, are all symbolic representations in the brain. This is undoubtedly true. So why does if feel differently being in the moment, than having had it pass? What is the difference between a cool breeze on our faces a hot summer’s day and our memory of it? What about an imaginary breeze? What is the difference between a the memory of a friend alive or dead? What is the difference between an imaginary friend and a real friend?

I write this text moments after having learned of the death of a friend. I’m now a whirl of conflicting emotions and my conclusion is that none of my understanding of the nature of the world matters. A heart in pain doesn’t care about the philosophical implications or what science tells us is natural or normal. It doesn’t care whether it makes sense to feel hurt. All it requires is human contact and comfort. To find the warm and caring eyes of compassion. A place to feel safe.

Sanctus: Written by Zbniew Preisner to his friend and artistic collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski as he was dying in hospital.

Since we’re atheists, shouldn’t it make us, the Syntheists, better at dealing with loss than other religions? We aren’t afraid of the naturalistic reality of life. I have to conclude; probably not. All religions are excellent at dealing with grief. Which is odd considering that the vast majority of religions have ideas of an afterlife. An outright denial of death is standard practice. When a loved one dies why are they sad at all? Their loved one is now, allegedly, in a happier place? Aren’t they?

Which brings me back to my earlier point. The heart feels what the heart feels. Comforting lies and wishful thinking, no matter how often repeated, cannot give comfort in times of great emotional turmoil. Only the genuine caring compassion of a community will be good enough. It certainly seems like all major religions figured this out early on and are all good at it. They’ve just neglected to tell anyone. They all have successful models we can use.

An Islamic funeral ritual

1) Bathing the dead body, The immediate family and others trusted by them clean the deceased together. Psychologically it works on many levels. It brings home the reality of what has happened powerfully. It serves to remove any sanitized image one might have had about the person. This body is unquestionably lifeless, but life has to continue and those surviving can find help and solace in each other. In the shared ritual they are physically helping each other, and may act as a bridge to allow them to open up and help each other emotionally.

2) Enshrouding the body in white cotton or linen cloth. A symbol of our equality. At birth and death we truly are all equal.

3) The funeral prayer, Salat al-Janazah

“O God, if he was a doer of good, then increase his good deeds, and if he was a wrongdoer, then overlook his bad deeds. O God, forgive him and give him the steadiness to say the right thing.”

If one wants to be cynical, one might say that it’s not about asking God to forgive the deceased, but the congregation, family and friends; and not allow any perceived sins besmirch those surviving the dead. Allowing each person to be their own.

4) Burial of the dead body in a grave. Emotionally it’s normal to outright deny that somebody you have lost is actually lost. The burial acts as forcing the survivors to physically expel the dead from their lives. Not their memory of course, but unhealthy hopes of a future together. 

5) Positioning the body so that the head faces Mecca. To emphasize the Muslim identity and being part of a community.

It is arguably the single most important feature of any religion. What we can do differently is cut the bullshit. Leave the platitudes and one-liners we all know have never helped anybody.

The way we react to death of loved ones makes it all too obvious that we’re primarily emotional beings. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all, at times fragile and in need of being taken care of and comforted by somebody we trust.  Much like a parent comforts a child. It doesn’t matter how rich we are, how economically efficient world we create for ourselves if we don’t primarily focus that world on taking care of human insecurities and character flaws. Without compassion from our fellow humans, we are truly alone in this world. We need to support each other, help each other, because we know nothing else will.

Please take some time to think about those in your life, the people you care about, who you know are suffering from a loss now, those who are overcoming grief or hardship. What kind of support do they require? Is it within your power to help them? Is your help welcome? Often all that is needed is to let them know that you’re there for them if they need you.

 

If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are surely no theists at a funeral.

If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are surely no theists at a funeral.

 

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.