A Conversation

(Barbara G. Walker, Restoring the Goddess:  Equal Rites for Modern Women)

          Echoing the cliche that has been heard through the centuries, my friend said, "People need to believe in God because it's a comfort."  Is this truism really true?
          Personally, I could see nothing comfortable about an arbitrary belief imposed on the unknown, and I said so, "People don't want to face the unknown, " she answered.
          "Well, you don't face it anyway, if you don't know it," I remarked.  "The universe is full of unknowns. Even most of what is now known to scientists is still unknown to a majority of laypersons.  Not knowing is our usual state of existence.  If people are upset by not knowing, how come they don't' make more of an effort to learn about what is known?"
          "That would mean study and concentration, " she said.  "People don't want to concentrate.  They want to be given simple, understandable answers and reassurances, like God is there, God loves you, everything's okay.  That's comforting."
          "That's infantile," I snorted.  "Babies need that, but grownups shouldn't.  How can it be comforting to believe what you know, deep down, is improbable?  That kind of comfort is a thin crust over an abyss."
          "Maybe so," she answered, "but most people seem to be infantile in that way.  The idea of the unknown is too much for them, even though the word is somehow attractive.  They'd rather call it God and assume it to be known in some sense."
          "There lies one of the paradoxes," I said.  "Theologians say God is unknowable, then go on to explain in great detail that they know all about him.  If you equate God with the unknown, then by definition you are worshipping what you know nothing about.  How could you know whether 'the Unknown' even wants to be worshiped?  The whole concept is without sense."
          "Does it make any more sense to call it Goddess?"
          "It does if you understand Goddess not as a transcendent reality, like God is supposed to be, but as a metaphor:   the embodiment in a word of Earth, Nature, the life force in general, the biological creative and nurturant power that is predominantly female.  I don't envision Goddess as a substitute for my own ignorance.  I'm content to let the unknown be unknown."
          "Well, that's you," she said.  "Most people want some kind of explanation for the unknown."
          "I have no problem with that," I said.  "Curiosity is a fine thing when it impels us to find out more about our world, or ourselves, or whatever.  Curiosity is important.  But curiosity should seek real answers, not be slaked by improbable stories made up by people devoid of genuine knowledge.  Fairy tales are entertainment, not enlightenment.   There's nothing wrong with imaginative entertainment; bit it shouldn't be mistaken for enlightenment.  For instance, we can enjoy science fiction without supposing it to be real science.  Explaining the unknown becomes unintelligent and unintelligible when it crosses the line and becomes fiction claiming to be fact."
          "Don't you think fiction can present facts - about human nature, for example?"
          "Of course it can, and often does.  But that's not the same as, say, presenting biblical myths as literal history.   Literature can be metaphorical enlightenment, but there's a basic dishonesty about giving people the traditional impossibles (like a virgin birth) and demanding an implicit belief in their reality.  That's insulting to the human intellect.  One should be free to criticize and reject explanations that contradict the laws of probability."
          "Shouldn't one also be free to choose the impossible explanations as well?"
          "Yes, if that's really what is wanted.  Unfortunately, in matters of religion it's not a truly free choice.   Religious belief is so pervasive a part of our culture that most people grow up taking it for granted, then in adulthood they can't think it through anymore.  They have accepted the improbable, and it takes on the same aura of 'comfort' connected with childhood notions generally.  Belief in God is the adult version of belief in Santa Claus, only without the eventual letting-go.  For my part, as a child I was troubled by the nagging suspicion that Santa Claus didn't make sense, and I was greatly comforted by the revelation that he wasn't an alien spiritual being after all, but only a metaphorical expression of my own parents' real love, which I could trust.  The transition from God to Goddess is also something like that."
          "Most people want more meaning to life than seeing it just as a biological or sociological condition, especially if their human relationships are less than satisfactory."
          "But belief and meaning are not the same thing.  There are lots of rational ways to give meaning to one's life:   raising children successfully, doing good work, helping others, learning, teaching, creating art, meeting personal goals, even the acquisition of money or power.  These are meanings.  Mere existence, all by itself, can't mean anything.  It just is."
          "That's the point," my friend said.  "People want there is-ness to mean something."
          "What kind of something?" I asked.
          "I don't know.  That's the unknown that needs faith."
          "I hardly think the human species can be justified in thinking that its mere existence has a transcendent meaning, other than the obvious fact that it is causing mass extinctions of other species by overproliferating itself.  What meaning will we have, after the almost-inevitable has happened, and we have joined the other 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on earth and are now extinct?  Some species will survive us and go on to reproduce their kind in a different, humanless world.  Until the sun stops radiating heat and light - which it will, eventually - life forms probably will continue to evolve on this planet; but our existence here is temporary and provisional.  We've been here for a very short time compared to most other species, and we seem to be eating ourselves out of house and home at a very fast rate.  Can that be construed as a meaning?"
          "No, but that's an awful pessimistic view of humanity."
          "It's a realistic view.   We have no reason to believe ourselves intrinsically different from any other species just because we have developed language and technology.  We have disabled or destroyed most of our natural enemies and so have become our own natural enemies.   Unlike the majority of other species, we kill our own kind with great enthusiasm.   We may dominate the earth today, but that's no guarantee that we will be here tomorrow, when the earth no longer produces what we need for survival.  Species come and go, and may change the environment for better or worse, from their own point of view.   The earth doesn't care.  The universe doesn't care.  The life force - Goddess - will go on evolving, until conditions no longer support the process.  Where is any transcendent meaning in all that?"
           "You don't see any good in human existence, then."
           "I didn't say that.   From the human point of view, there is much good in human existence, even when it's bad for other creatures.  Much of what we create is enjoyable and useful, and may even be harmless, though that's a moot point.  Cutting down trees to build a house, we destroy the home or livelihood of innumerable insects, birds, or small mammals like mice and squirrels.  In building a town, we destroy thousands of acres of natural habitat and all its creatures.  If a man enjoys going out in the woods and shooting deer, are the deer having a good time?  Every day we kill millions of animals for food, for clothing, or for nothing just because they get in the way of our cars.  To eat is good, from our viewpoint.  To go somewhere is good, even if it means polluting the environment and piling up road-kills.  Our is-ness hurts the rest of the living world mainly because there are too many of us.  When the human population of this planet was very much smaller, our predatory ways didn't make a vast difference.  Now they do.  If there were such a God as some people presume, do you think he would have deliberately arranged such an imbalanced world?"
           "Theologians are always pointing out the folly of trying to comprehend God by the rules of human logic."
           "Well, of course they are, because logic won't support their premises.  That method has been tried and tried again, without much success.  So they advise faith as a substitute for logic.   I think that's a profound mistake.  The only thing we've ever really had going for us, as a species, is our ability to reason.  Now we need that ability more than ever.  If we are to get past the present 'Sixth Extinction' without doing ourselves in along with everything else.  It's faith that told us we were so superior that we have a right to exploit and destroy other creatures.  It's faith that told us women were born to be men's slaves.  It's faith that tells us we're virtuous when we go to war and kill multitudes of other humans, besides all the other life that our wars blow up, trample, shoot, crush, or poison without even noticing.  It's faith that teaches us to be irrational and to convince ourselves of the improbable.  It's faith that loads us with guilt for being sexual creatures, denies the inevitability of our death, forces too many young females to bear unwanted throwaway children, fosters interracial hatreds, and demands too many of our resources that could be more sensibly and humanely utilized."
           "It's faith that has encouraged us toward literal belief in angels, devils, ghosts, vampires, familiar spirits, chimeras, witchcraft, sorcery, divination, miracles, necromancy, spiritualism, resurrection of the dead, past lives, snake oil, space beings, vibrational healings, channeling, psychic levitation, or psychic friends, as well as gods.  Considering that these concepts have been created by human minds and by nothing else in nature, it seems begging the question to say they shouldn't be subject to human reason.   Therefore we have every right - maybe even a duty - to think about these things before committing to a belief in them.  Every theologian knows that faith has to be instilled before a child matures enough to be able to think.  That way, rationality can be forever closed out of that area of the mind that clings to faith."
           "Rationality is also closed out of those areas that we call love, sympathy, sorrow, anger, and most other emotions.  Yet they certainly exist."
           "Of course, but they exist in us, not elsewhere.  Sane people direct their emotions toward the actual individuals or circumstances that have stimulated them, rather than supposing that these emotions apply to the unknown.  We have no reason to believe that the natural universe of phenomena, known or unknown, is subject to human-type emotions.  Despite millennia of straining to discover God in objective reality, no such discovery has been made.  God is still not demonstrable, except as a metaphor, so I would as soon call it Goddess as anything else."
           "Would you call your Goddess concept a faith, then?"  my friend asked.
           "No. I'd call it, perhaps, a poem, or a work of art, or an idea, remembering always that ideas are human products.  I'm not so crude as to propose literal belief in a Big Mama sitting up in the clouds or under the mountains.  I'd prefer the idea of Goddess to be known, not unknown.  Goddess may be our psychological experience of Mother, or a personification of earth, or a longing for womanlike tenderness, or a fitting reverence for the female creative principle, or any other reasonable description.  It should never imply a blind faith that ignores reality.  I prefer the word Goddess because it's fresh, without those ever-so-numerous traditional connotations of intolerance and oppression that hang about the word God."
           "So you're comfortable with the thought of leaving the unknown to remain unknown?
           "Perfectly.  I don't insist on any undefined transcendent meanings.  As far as I can tell, the cosmos just is, and we are too insignificant a part of it to assume any reason or purpose for it.  Anyway, the whole idea of purpose is a human invention in itself.  The real purpose of any living thing is to stay alive as long as possible and produce more of its kind.  Beyond that, we are in the realm of fable."
           She laughed.  "And humans are so much better at making up fables that they are at finding out truths, right?"
           "Right.  Fables are fun, and truth is hard to discover.  Every American child, growing up with storybooks and TV cartoons and fantasies of every kind, is fed a hundred fables for every one truth.   For most, it's infinitely easier to remember that Cinderella wore a glass slipper than to remember the distance from earth to the sun.  We condition our children to be believers rather than truth-seekers."
           "I know that Christian churches made a terrible mess of their own credibility during the nineteenth century, when they were busy denying just about every scientific breakthrough that came along, because it didn't agree with Scripture; and I know that some of them still do that.  But most mainstream sects today are perfectly willing to accept scientific truth.  They say that faith is concerned with a 'higher' truth, meaning more elegant thoughts, I guess, or something closer to an ultimate truth."
           "Yes, but each sect's 'higher' truth differs from the next one's, and truth is hardly a word to describe any subject about which there is endless disagreement.  Truth is a matter of proof, not a matter of opinion.  All of Judeo-Christian history has been filled with mutually contradictory 'truths,' their believers all trying to diabolize, discredit, or even slaughter one another, and to make more converts than their rivals.  Still, a lie remains a lie no matter how many people believe it.  It has often been said that if there were a God wishing to get a particular message across to human beings, he has certainly gone about it in the most muddleheaded way imaginable."
           She gazed into the middle distance for a while, cogitating.  Then she said:  "You're right about that, but surely religion in modern America has outgrown all those murderous rivalries and diabolizations.  There are many churches, and they have different theologies, but they tolerate one another.  You don't see Presbyterians attacking Lutherans, or Catholics bombing synagogues."
           "Don't you?  How about recent events in Ireland?  The fact is that religious battles are going on all the time.  What is the bombing of an abortion clinic but an act of religious terrorism?  What about all the religious strife in the Muslim world?"
           "Well, they're at a lower level of intellectual sophistication, I guess.  There will always be ignorant people; and bigotry and intolerance are the products of ignorance.  The ordinary, decent (I almost said God-fearing) American is willing to accept neighbors who have differing beliefs."
           "Yes," I said, "and that diversity may be one of our best saving graces.  Religion in modern American is a scrap-heap of loose boulders trying to pretend that it's a monolith - that is, each boulder tries to pretend that all the others, basically, agree.  Such diversity of opinion is surely better than Europe's condition when the medieval church really was a political monolith, self-empowered to dominate, confiscate, excommunicate, and use torture and the stake to eliminate heterodoxies.  America's founding fathers were absolutely right to insist on total separation of church and state.  They were still, historically, close to the horrors of truly monolithic religion.  We have forgotten how evil the combination of church and state can be, how threatening to the basic principles of democracy and intellectual freedom.  And there are fundamentalist forces today trying to bring that situation back."
           "I know," she said, "and I find that scary.  Fanatics are always dangerous, and ignorant fanatics are worst of all.  There's a really puzzling unknown for you - why is it that people who profess the strongest faith in a loving God are most prone to be filled with hate and violence?"
           "I think it's probably due to some remnant of rationality that suspects their faith might be questionable after all; so they perceive anyone with different opinions as a threat.  Those who want to kill heretics are really trying to kill the heresy within themselves.  After all, they are adult human beings with some sort of brain, and some part of that brain whispers that the god they think is so real is actually the Unknown.  This is an intolerable thought and they project it outward, onto others, to get rid of it."
          "Still, you can't deny that every religion has many people who are truly kind, loving, and tolerant, and who feel that their faith has made them so, and who practice what is generally described as Christian charity."
          "Certainly I don't deny that," I answered.  "I'm not sure, though, just how much of their goodness can be attributed to their faith, and how much really belongs to their basic character and the way they were raised.  It's possible that people are made essentially kind or cruel by factors having nothing to do with religion, and then any religion they adopt will prove to be an expression of those factors.  That's why it's so important to train children in every religious tradition, no matter what, to be honest, responsible, and helpful to others.  That's the only way we can ever have a comfortable society."
          "Another Unknown," she laughed.  "How to raise children?  Of course all those male psychologists have been blathering about it for decades without making much of a difference, and of course you'll say that mothers know best, and that's another manifestation of the Goddess."
          "Sure," I said.   "Mothers do know best, and left to themselves, most of them would raise children lovingly and tolerantly, teaching them to get along with others, allowing them to enjoy themselves, and also insisting that they respect knowledge and apply themselves to learn.  Mothers would do that because they would want their children well prepared to have happy and useful adult lives.  In a patriarchal society these things are not always easy.  There are many other distracting elements and forces involved in our children's socialization."
          "Television being a big one, of course," she said.  "And just look at the heavy sell that television gives 'the Unknown'!  All those programs about the paranormal, Encounters, Sightings, The Extraordinary, Unsolved Mysteries, The Other Side, which seem to say that the Unknown is encountered almost every day in such forms as telepathy, ghosts, angels, prophecy, aliens, UFOs, and all kinds of magic.  And lots of pure fantasy as well, sci-fi, Outer Limits, ghoulies and ghosties in horror flicks, lots of make-believe scares, as well as religious programs.  Skepticism is never even mentioned as a possibility, but 'willing suspension of disbelief' is certainly encouraged."
          "Yes, if there's any disbelief there in the first place to be suspended.  Most children simply take it in without making any distinction between probable and improbable, and so do most childlike adults.   In modern America there is no really distinct line between religion and show business.  Hollywood has been creating religion for many years; millions of people are more familiar with the gospel according to Cecil B. de Mille than with the gospel according to Matthew.  The convincing immediacy of film media always tends to blur the line between fantasy and reality for a large segment of the audience.  There are even people who completely identify actors with the roles they play."
          "Early training in credulity can leave people vulnerable to any number of fringe beliefs that present fantasy as reality; and credulity as a character trait is encouraged in every child who grows up hearing that blind faith is a virtue; whereas doubt and questioning are sins.   Religion's war against fringe beliefs is not a war of the rational against the irrational; it's a contest between different fantasy systems, the mainstream ones having more political and financial clout, and therefore able  to advertise themselves into respectability.  Miracles, magic, drama, and charlatanism all have a common root.   So it's no wonder that a believing society is plagued by spellbinders, gurus, psychics, channelers, fortune tellers, and miracle mongers of every stripe.  No matter how often it's shown that psychics' predictions don't come true, transcendental meditators don't levitate, crystals don't cure cancer, telepathy doesn't work, dead people don't talk, and 'speaking in tongues' is just meaningless babble, all the negative instances are ignored because all the trained believers are more comfortable with belief than with disbelief.  Superstition therefore reigns everywhere, and the most shameless frauds are more popular than debunkers.  This is the shared insanity of modern culture."
         "So how is the concept of the Goddess any less insane that the rest?"
         "Ah.  Here we have a unique opportunity, a way to create a really new thing in cultural attitudes.  Throughout the matrifocal period of human history, the Goddess was taken literally, just as the god is now by most believers.  Then She began to be discredited, and over several thousand years Her literal existence came to be denied.  Now She can return in a new, more realistic form:  not literal.  She can be clearly recognized as a human construct - a valuable, even essential metaphor of feminine forces in nature, a cherished symbol, a means of understanding, something like a national flag or a totem.  Her literal existence can still be denied, you see, which places Her in a stronger position than the god whose followers don't dare deny him.  We can say, no, the Goddess is not any Big Mama sitting up in the clouds, so don't bother to insult your intelligence about Her.  She exists as an archetype, as a universal human concept, and She doesn't need your credulity.  Paraphrasing Pogo, women can say, 'We have met the Goddess, and She is us.'"
          "My friend looked thoughtful.   "That's rather deep," she said slowly.  "You seem to be saying that to deny the reality of the Goddess is to enhance belief in Her."
          "No belief, exactly.  It would be better to call it usefulness.  As a concept, She works - especially for women, who need such a concept and have needed it for centuries now.  This involves admitting that all deities are nothing more and nothing less than human concepts; and that admission alone would represent a step forward in human thought, bringing us a little closer to the kind of mental sophistication that would engender real tolerance and clearer vision.  Belief is not proof, and it's high time we recognized that.  We need not confuse our symbols with reality in order to make use of symbols.  We know that a national emblem is not literally the physical country, but the emblem is useful nevertheless.  So it is with the Goddess.  She does not require us to believe anything against our common sense."
          My friend smiled.  "I begin to see.  It really is a rather new way of looking at the idea of deity."
          "It's also a new way of dealing with the unknown:  We don't have to pretend to know it.  Thealogians don't have to fill us full of guff about what the Goddess thinks, and wants, and commands, the way theologians have been pretending to know such things about their god all these centuries.  Furthermore, thealogians don't have to make any silly assumptions that a future science will disprove and shatter the faith of believers who have been taught to view them as eternal truths.  Thealogy can leave the unknown alone, to be gradually discovered by the scientific method, the only way that really works.  We can perceive the Goddess as collectively human, and immanent, and pragmatic.  It seems to be that, given all this, She may have a longer life expectancy in human culture than any of the father gods who have foolishly tried to do without the principle of motherhood."
          "I don't know why, but that does kind of soften any fear of the unknown," she said.  "What we don't know isn't so frightening.  It's what we do know about the evils of patriarchal society that I find most frightening.  If the Goddess idea can mitigate some of those evils, I'm all for it.  But what about the final unknown - the life-after-death unknown?  I think that's what lies at the core of most religious belief.  We want to be told that we aren't going to stop existing."
          "You're right, of course; but the problem with patriarchal religion is that it has introduced the ultimate sadism into its afterlife idea:  for our trivial sins, a hell of agony that never, ever ends.   Surely nonexistence would be better than an existence like that."
          "Yes, but hardly anybody ever believes that he's going to hell.  Why, the church gives ritual assurances of blessed afterlife even to Mafia murderers and thieves and other criminals, no matter what they've done; they can always buy their way into heaven, it seems.  They would have us believe that even the angels rejoice at the arrival of a 'prodigal,' or a sinner who managed to get enough deathbed-time to repent."
          "Well, even with the assurance of heaven, what is that?  The patriarchal theologians never came up with anything better than an eternity of singing praises to God.  Who but egotistical man could have invented a God whose heavenly bliss consists of hearing his own praises sung by blessed spirits, day ad night for all eternity?  The worst old-fashioned Oriental potentate was never that puffed up with himself.  And why would a creator of an unthinkably vast universe require so much flattery from mere human beings, dead or alive?"
          She laughed.  "I've read that the ancient pagans described heavenly bliss as an eternal orgasm.  Not that I wouldn't mind believing.  But matters of love get terribly confused.   Christianity teaches (according to the Gospel) that there is no marriage in heaven.   But most people want to envision a reunion with loved ones.  And what about multiple marriages?  Are you supposed to meet all the husbands you may have had, or they meet all their ex-wives, and so on?  It could get really complicated."
          "One of the first things that turned me against Christianity," I said, "was the discovery that animals were not allowed in heaven.  Some of the individuals I have loved most in my life have been animals.  When I heard that there would be no afterlife for them, when I was a child, I decided then and there that I wanted no part of God's heaven.  We're also told that heaven belongs to the poor in spirit.  What fun would it be to spend eternity with the poor in spirit?"
          "So, what do you think you will be after you die?"
          "Either ashes or rotting meat.   In either case, all my atoms will return to the environment in some form, and be dispersed into other substances and/or entities.  The pagans had a much more sophisticated idea of their eternally churning cauldron, the Crone's image of cyclic life-and-death."
          "But what about your soul?"
          "What is soul, other than the consciousness and feeling that I have while my brain is alive and functioning?  Soul is to the body what music is to the violin.  When you smash the violin to atoms, it doesn't play music any more.  When all my gray matter is dispersed into the atmosphere or the soil or whatever, I have no more consciousness.  I'm back where I was before I was born, that is, nowhere."
          "Then what do you think it is that we call soul or spirit?"
          "I think soul is not a thing but a function, an attitude; say it's what Freud described as the oceanic feeling, or our own sense of what we perceive as being best about ourselves.   Physically it's just one more astronomically complicated series of electrical patterns in the brain, perhaps a little more complicated than those in the brains of other mammals, because it's all mixed up with verbiage and imaginary concepts; but not much more complicated.  We think and feel, apes think and feel, dogs and cats and horses and elephants and whales all think and feel in the same way, essentially.  The Christian idea that humans are fundamentally different from all other creatures, and superior, and empowered by God to exploit all the rest of them with total callousness, is one of the maddest and most dangerous ideas ever evolved by that supreme egoist, man."
          "Well, it all makes sense, in a dismal sort of way.  But the majority of people really don't want to give up whatever personal vision they may have of some kind of immortality."
          "What's dismalest is the way our sense of God-given soul has led us to mistreat Mother Earth and Her creatures, whereas our pagan ancestors were wiser about walking in balance on the land, not hoarding what you don't need, using the gifts of nature without wasting them.  These are things we need to relearn.  I think the Goddess movement will prove to be of significant use in relearning them.  As women were the first religious teachers of the human race, so they need to be again.  We don't need immortality if we can create a paradise on earth, where people can be happy as well as productive, creative, responsible, and kind. Utopia!"
          "Of course a real Utopia is impossible."
          "Yes, but that journey will be the important thing, not the impossible destination.  The women are setting their feet on the path.  The old paths have led into ugly thickets and dead ends.  It's time for a new way to be tried, don't you think?"
          "I do."
          "Then let's try."
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