Secular Gods: Abstractions

“God” is an abstraction.  Well, theists don’t think so, of course, but I do. Theists use the word “God” to cluster together feelings of identity, purpose, belongingness, hope, safety and more.  “God” is a package. “God” is a tool to speak fast to others about their agreed package of preferences or to manipulate others into new preferences. When speakers basically agree on their use of “God”, the conversation is very effective — for the better or the worse.

When a person wants to escape that abstract God-package, one technique is to change the god — change the theology, alter the revelation, revamp the hermeneutics, call for return-to-the-source and more.  These are the moves of reformers, people who like the “God” tool and want to keep it. But another technique, the atheist move, is to see through the illusion of the “God” abstraction, “look behind the curtain” and expose the manipulation.

Using abstractions to speed up conversation is a valuable language tool. Though atheists may see behind the “God” abstraction, they often don’t fully see behind the phenomena of “abstraction” itself.  Many Atheists, acting just like theists, continue to use the same manipulation tool that theists used to create their “God”.  Atheists, buying into the illusions of abstractions, then create their own “gods” — their secular gods.

Some of these secular gods include abstractions like “Nature”, “the World”, “Justice”, “Religion”, “Patriotism”, “Equality”, “Freedom”,  “Love”, “Reason”, “Me”. Depending on the Atheist, any one of these or more become their “god(s)”.

Abstractions are needed for many of the games we play. Games are best played when we take the rules seriously and forget their arbitrary nature.  However, the harmful aspect of games is best kept in check when we keep in mind that it is arbitrary.  Many of the complexities of our lives involve this tension: simultaneously holding in mind the seriousness and arbitrariness of our games, of our abstractions, of our gods.


See my other posts on: The Limits of Abstractions


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

22 responses to “Secular Gods: Abstractions

  1. Ian

    That darned Plato.

    It is, I think, an example of a broader error.

    Because we use words to convey meaning, we fall into the trap of thinking words mean things. So we go looking for those things that are what the word means.

    My bible study group is looking at John at the moment, and this one is being led by a Christian. It is excruciating, because the whole thing is happening at this level “what does ‘Word’ mean?” “what does it mean to say they were ‘children of God’?”. I tried to suggest that words don’t work that way, but the cultural indoctrination runs too deep.

  2. @ Ian,
    Yes, I fully agree.
    Wow, I can’t believe you could tolerate sitting through a class like that where you did not have substantial input. As you say, undoing these cognitive blocks is very hard — they reach down to the language level — very deep. Deeper than religion. And since everyone does it intuitively, they think they understand it perfectly well. Arghhhh.

  3. It’s both a blessing and a curse that I am always trying to push past the abstractions that people use. I’m also trying to push past my own, even though I know they are often necessary for communication, at least initially.

    My wife has Asperger’s and is pretty much incapable of playing the games. It makes for meaningful conversations between us, but causes great difficulty in relating to most other people.

  4. @MichaelB,
    Pray tell, what abstractions are you trying to push past now but still find useful?
    Interesting about your wife being an Aspie — have you written about that? Does she read your blog. Did you know she was Aspie when you married her? Did she?

  5. @Sabio,
    I’ll have to think about my abstractions and get back to you, but I’m certain I have some. As for writing about my wife, I’m actually working on a new blog specifically dedicated what it’s like being married to an Aspie. I hope to have it up soon. We’ve been married 21 years but she only recently figured out she has it. In that short time she has been able to find some kindred souls online who also have it. Now she doesn’t feel nearly as alone or out of place as she dis for most of her life. The traits of female Asperger’s are not nearly as well know or talked about as the male ones and there is a dearth of information. I have several of the male traits myself, which is why I think we connect so well. Anyway…spoilers. I’ll send you an email when it’s up as I don’t plan to link my two blogs.

  6. CRL

    Because, obviously, the game of assigning too much significance to the (literal) meaning of a word is a game no Aspie can play.😀

  7. Come on, CRL, no fair! You have to tell MichaelB you are a proud Aspie! Aren’t Aspies known to be considerably less vulnerable to religiosity?
    BTW — good to see ya again.

  8. CRL

    I lurk, but unless there’s one sentence only I can write, I typically don’t comment. The whole ‘eight college classes” thing probably wasn’t a good idea.

  9. In hindsight, I’m amazed my wife managed to play the religious game as long as she did. When she dropped it (shortly after me), it was like slipping off an uncomfortable pair of shoes.

  10. @Sabio,
    Unless I’m misunderstanding what you mean by abstraction, I’d say the Future (or my Future Self) is a big one. That Future (or Future Me) will never exist exactly as I envision, but holding onto it as a nebulous thing pushes me to be a better husband, work hard towards my degree, etc. Is it absolutely needed? No, but for now it works until I find something better.

  11. @CRL,
    Is it ironic that I’m reading too much into your comment?

  12. @MichaelB,
    “The Future” is such an abstraction indeed. Indeed I think many Buddhists address the illusion of both “The Past” and “The Future” as deceptive abstractions. But like all abstractions (agreeing with you), they can be useful — the problem is when we forget that we created them and we become destructively enslaved by them. Others know their deceptive power and use them to manipulate us also.

  13. TWF

    Sabio, I think your view is only partially correct; part of “God” is an abstraction. Other parts are incredibly real and concrete. It’s not all about banner waving, as there is a private, personal aspect to faith. To some extent, this “reality” has even been scientifically supported by MRI imaging of the brain during religious activities.

    To call the secular ideals you’ve listed “gods” is a disservice to the abstraction of “god”. While I’ve certainly run into people who have held the conceptual ideals of “Nature”, “the World”, “Justice”, “Religion”, “Patriotism”, “Equality”, “Freedom”, “Love”, “Reason”, and “Me” in inappropriately high regard, not one of them prays to these concepts. And you’re not going to get the same MRI response to activities and thoughts focused on these items, with the only possible exception being the “Me”. Instead, it’s more akin to what Ian mentioned; Plato’s idealism.

    But to call these “gods” is an abstraction of the already abstract term “god”. In my opinion, it falls into the same type of reprehensible category of abstraction as one of the ones commonly performed now within Christianity; namely, the one where anything that takes time and resources away from your focus on God is essentially “idolatry”.

  14. CRL


    Likely not; it’s often easy to see a one sentence comment as cryptic, and thus to assume it means more than it says.

    To clarify, I simply meant that Aspie-Aspie communication may be direct, but it is still imperfect. Often, two people working under different definitions of a word may grow somewhat unhealthily attached to their definition, and having a somewhat black and white view of the world and a bit of difficulty seeing someone else’s viewpoint certainly doesn’t improve this. While these are aspects of my personality that I recognize and fight, they are existent nonetheless.

  15. CRL

    And as to the actual topic of this post:

    I am, and have always been, much more drawn to god as an abstraction than as a concrete entity. The idea of god (Jesus, really) as an ideal of moral perfection still draws me strongly, even if this assumes moral perfection is possible. A part of me wants to believe it is—that if one fights harder and harder to make the world a better place, the limit this approaches at infinity will be god. Yet this seems unlikely, and seems to give a one sided, black and white, “there is only one way to be right” view of morality. But perhaps I just fear the sacrifice involved in an attempt to approach this god would be too great.

  16. @ TWF,
    Yeah, controversy! Thanx.

    I am so funny. I naturally assume that what I say will be so boringly plain that people will just yawn and leave. — So glad you found my idea a disservice, reprehensible and idolatrist.

    So let’s see if I can address your objections:

    (1) I would consider the clustering of inner, “private” experiences into the word “God” would also be an abstraction. I am not just talking about outer banners. I agree that the inner religious activity is “real” and clustering these visceral “real” experience into the term “God” is an abstraction move. Same as we do with “love” or “admiration”.

    (2) I agree with you that people may not pray to these secular abstractions (though I actually think some do in a sense, but that is another story). But I was not equating the secular gods and Yahweh type God to be the same, only that they share this very odd abstraction self-deception.

    I am wondering if you see this post as reprehensible because it goes along with the common theists objections like:
    “Yeah, your atheism is a religion too.”
    “You have idols in your life — you make false gods.”
    Maybe you feel this post supports those accusations which you feel totally miss the point. Just guessing.

  17. @CRL,
    That’s a good way to put it. I know how I am and how my wife is, but reframing it all in light of our recent discovery of AS has been a learning process.

  18. TWF

    Well, Sabio, it’s not often, but I like to disagree with you when I can. I know you like (at least some) arguments better than just having an echo chamber! 🙂

    1) Hmmm. Maybe I need your definition of “abstraction”. When it get’s to the personal actions directly related to the concept, I tend to think it crosses a threshold that is no longer abstract.

    2) “I agree with you that people may not pray to these secular abstractions (though I actually think some do in a sense, but that is another story).” Too funny. I almost said “people don’t make offerings and sacrifices to them”, but I figured you could abstract that concept to say “oh yes they do!” I figured I was safer with praying. Doh!

    But that kind of abstraction extrapolation is part of the gripe that I’m making. When you say that Love or Separatism or Justice is a god to some people, I would venture to say that you are really using the term “god” as a metaphor. But what you’ve laid out in the argument of your post is that “god” is an abstraction, and that some secular folks have there “gods” of the same caliber. This explicit equating of the two no longer allows for “god” to be just a metaphor, just like in my example above regarding idolatry.

    In other words, I think that the language you’ve used here goes beyond simply drawing a parallel (of which, I believe your comparison does have validity) to defining the two activities as being the same (which is not the case at all, even if there are similar aspects).

    For a trivial example, when someone says “football is my religion“, there is an inherent understanding that football is not a religion, but that that person is a very serious and committed fan of it. But what you’ve said here is that when someone says “football is my religion”, they mean religion (as religion, just like god, is an abstraction).

    But, yes, I am somewhat sensitive to the whole idolatry thing, though not from the “Atheism is a religion too” aspect. Rather, the modern bastardization of that term really screws up proper interpretation of Scriptural prophesies (which are obviously dated and obsolete when viewed with the proper sense of the word), and I’ve seen and heard preachers beat up their own congregations for having “idols” of children, work, spouses, etc. It’s unhealthy.

  19. @ TWF,

    Maybe, as you write, part of our possible difference is differing uses of the word.
    I hate to do this to you, but you might enjoy:

    The Ontological Fallacy” by John Wikins on Evolving Thoughts where he describes what Whitehead called the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness”.

    I am having a hard time figuring my way through your comment.
    I will try to simply restate rather than argue my phrasing and see if you still disagree:

    (1) “God” is used as an abstraction of feelings, desires and behavior and thus feels very real to people — but that it is merely the fallacy of misplaced Concreteness.

    (2) Most folks don’t understand this deep psychological process.

    (3) Atheists often argue that the Theist is just stupid and believing silly beliefs. Which may be true, but those beliefs are functioning to concretize feelings, desires and behavior so as to talk about them more succintly and effectively. But such a move is often manipulative too.

    (4) All along, Atheists do a similar concretizing making abstractions with equal self-deceptive and abuse-ripe-potential as theists. Even thought they have thrown off one such process — but without realizing the deeper processes of
    (a) function vs truth-value of belief
    (b) and then (a) used on their concretizing the abstract.

    (5) Finally, to make my point, for dramatic effect, I am calling the Atheists creations of their own Abstractions “gods” too because of the amazining shared property of creation of “God” that theists use.

    So I guess you strongly object to #5. And you can do with #5 as you wish, but 1-4 are critical. Perhaps #4 comes down to the idea of words having uses vs. definitions and you are battle for the implications of definition you feel important. Well, that is not my point and I’d rather not go there. Here perhaps I am bending uses of “God” & “gods”, so as to get behind the phenomena of abstractions — the very thing that makes words. Definitions don’t make words.

    So, rather than focus on #5, the meet of the post is on 1-4.

    Wow, that was a long response — but I hope it was useful.

    BTW — you really do need to stop your idolatry!🙂

  20. TWF

    Sorry it was so labor-laden for you to parse my reply, Sabio. Judging by your reply, I think we may be speaking past each other.

    This is no “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness”. I have no problem with #1-4. As I stated, I think you are using “god” metaphorically, which is essentially what you started saying in the first part of #5. But then, I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand what you meant by “the Atheists creations of their own Abstractions “gods” too because of the amazining shared property of creation of “God” that theists use.” Perhaps a post is due on this to flesh it out even more, because you don’t have much detail in this post about it.

    What is this “shared property of creation”? Do you just mean that they appreciate (for lack of a better word) an abstraction (being a created entity)? If that is the thrust of your argument (as relating to #1-4), then, heck, pretty much anything that anyone does could be viewed in this light, especially given your statement “so as to get behind the phenomena of abstractions — the very thing that makes words.”

    Dropping the collateral implications, my central objection is this: Sure, words roughly communicate forms of abstractions, but we set some bounds on these abstractions. It is these limits which make words useful. The more you expand those limits, the less useful, and more prone to misunderstanding, the word can become. “God” already has wide boundaries, resulting in quite a bit of confusion. Your use of it here is not obviously intended for either metaphoric or dramatic effect, which is just muddying the water even more, in my opinion.

    Maybe you can resolve my own confusion with some examples of the similar behaviors at some level of detail. You know, make it more concrete. 😉

  21. So, TWF, I think your suggestion is excellent. I shall try to put together a post to clarify my muddy waters. I think you are quite right in saying “Perhaps a post is due on this to flesh it out even more, because you don’t have much detail in this post about it.”

    But the question is, shall I be able to pull it off?
    I see a couple of outcomes:
    (a) perhaps my efforts will indeed show that I am making the linguistic world uglier with my confusion.
    (b) Or shall I get you to say, “Damn, can’t believe I missed that. Sabio was right but again, it went right over my head.”
    (c) Or I will realize that my first post was sloppily vague and with the new diagram and linguistic therapy from you, I make a cogent point, albeit probably trivial.
    (d) Out of despair, I stop blogging altogether.

    I’ve got probabilities in my head for each of those outcomes — as I am sure you do too! 🙂 But let’s not share them and just wait and see.

    Seriously though, thank you so much for the input and challenges, I shall do my best to fall clearly in one of those four outcomes rather than continue dwelling in this blogging bardo.

  22. TWF

    Ha! I think I am actually already in agreement with you in principle. And I may unnecessarily being a stickler here. Even so, I think there will be something to gain in an expanding and clarification of your theme. To me, it’s harkens to that old adage; it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. 😉

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