Julia Sweeney and the Psychology of God

I have loved watching Julia Sweeney since I first saw her on Saturday Night Live over ten years ago. Since then Julia has left the show, battled cancer, suffered the death of her brother, and lost her faith in God. She has a new CD chronicling her life and loss of faith and now I’ve found that her blog has some very compelling thoughts posted on it. In one post she answers a believer about his experience of God and how that works in his life. The believer writes,

I feel his presence in my life. I have joy, peace, and contentment trusting in him even in very difficult situations. God has been faithful to me even when I have not been faithful to him. He has answered prayers and provided guidance with difficult decisions. Without Him in my life, there was a gaping hole in my being that only He could fill.

Julia answers,

I think you have been coached to feel that the joy and peace and contentment came from God when really that is all within you. You have the capacity to make yourself feel joy and peace and contentment and God is a mechanism through which you can transfer your inner powerfulness onto a “God” and then give it back to yourself as if it’s a gift. And it IS a gift. It’s the gift of your own evolved psychology and biology. You may need to believe in God. You may be a better person for believing in God. But that still doesn’t mean there is a God.

After reading such books as Julian Jayne’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind one can’t help but wonder if Julia is right. Our brains are strange and wonderful organs that can simulate any number of experiences that feel real to us. Science tells us that how we evolved directly contributes to how we think. Our brain is like the rest of us, ever evolving and ever creating neuro-pathways that further our existence and our thought life and even creating God as an interactive presence for us. Without getting into the logistics of “which came first,” God or the brain, one is left wondering if we do indeed manufacture our spirituality and train our brains to believe in a higher being “out there” rather than where it actually resides, in our own consciousness “in here.” Our well being is also created by the hormones we create that soothe us and assure us as we further the spirituality we have created for ourselves.

I have also read Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity which offers an entirely plausible explanation of God as our highest consciousness reflected back to us. Feuerbach explains that God is the subject of our idealization of man’s moral being. That to explain Christ’s atonement, we need a human to reflect our idea of perfect moral order back to us. Feuerbach writes,

God as God, that is, as a being not finite, not human, not materially conditioned, not phenomenal, is only an object of thought. He is the incorporeal, formless, incomprehensible – the abstract, negative being: he is known, i.e., becomes an object, only by abstraction and negation (viâ negationis). Why? Because he is nothing but the objective nature of the thinking power, or in general of the power or activity, name it what you will, whereby man is conscious of reason, of mind, of intelligence.

I strongly suggest you try to tackle Feuerbach’s treatise on Christianity at the web site link above. It is one of those fundamental books that will change your life. After reading it, it has always stayed at the back of my consciousness when I try to think through religion, philosophy, and humanism. None of the people mentioned here actually negate the existence of God per se. In fact, the existence of God, whether out there in the universe, apart from the universe, or in our own brains, is only real for each one of us, personally. That is the entire point. We can neither convince others of God’s existence or God’s non-existence; nor can we even convince ourselves. God is just there or is not there in our own mind. If God is anything, Godde is personal and immanent. Much violence would be avoided if all those who claim their personal God is supreme above all others would just keep it to themselves.

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4 thoughts on “Julia Sweeney and the Psychology of God

  1. Thats the problem with having a feeling-based faith. Feelings change & feelings are subjective.

  2. I don’t get how your comment pertains to this post?? From what I gather there is nothing about “feelings” written here except for Julia’s original poster who said that they know God exists because they “feel” God is there. You’re right, in this sense, feelings is the problem. But God cannot be proven by thought, feeling, or argument. Humans are all subjected (and locked) into their own experiences of God. You may share your experience with another, but the other can never walk in your shoes and feel what you feel. That’s why the experience of God is purely subjective.

  3. Yes, it’s purely subjective, like the flow of endorphins within one person. For example, I wandered along a beach towards sunset, saw an all-encompassing orange-red sky, wrote poetry about the unified field of experience… but I was totally alone in a unique subjective experience which led to my spiritual psychology, although another person might attribute the experience to God and being close to God – but no, it’s neuro-science. The imaginative brain does the whole job from perception to ‘interpretation.’

  4. Geoff,
    Yes, it does seem so. Our brains are brilliant mechanisms that can do wondrous things. It makes me wonder why we don’t explore this more than we do. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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