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A Naturalist approach to personal gods

Caveat on ‘God talk’

Spiritual Naturalism is a broad category of thought and practice. It’s unifying principles are: (1) an approach to life that stresses the essential perspectives, principles, and practices conducive to the good/flourishing life; and (2) a naturalistic worldview, and by implication the rational and humble approach to knowledge and claims associated with its best form. This necessarily precludes the kind of supernatural and personified God in which much of the world holds faith. And, it means most Spiritual Naturalists might be thought of as atheists and agnostics. I would count myself in this group, having no habit of using the word ‘God’ or ‘gods’ in reference to my own views or practice.

However, there are many deep and subtle takes on the concept which touch on history, culture, language, and even modern philosophy, physics, and the universe. Perhaps surprising to some, not all of these are modern ‘retro-fits’ of old superstition. Rather, some are sophisticated philosophical perspectives that have been simplified by history. Our Society also welcomes and includes many naturalists who have a tradition that includes a kind of ‘deity practice’. That is, a useful place in their practice for a notion of gods or a God in a naturalistic rational sense; metaphorically or more profoundly. This includes naturalistic interpreters of Christian thought such as Michael Dowd and Arthur G. Broadhurst, as well as Naturalistic Pagans such as B. T. Newberg; all of them on our Advisory Board.

Even for those naturalists for whom these concepts are not used, any of we who understand the potential value in ritual, symbol, metaphor, or myth in our practice should at least find many of these concepts fascinating – and it is healthy to address them in discourse. Given that happiness is our aim (a subjective state), it should be no surprise if our subjective framing of the world should have a large impact on an effective practice. The politically minded among us may caution against misleading theists who might misinterpret this language and use it to bolster their proselytizing, and in this we should be cautious, clear, and honest. But we are not concerned with the ‘culture wars’ here. Our aim is to explore ideas with a sense of wonder and exploration, and it is in this spirit that I will proceed.



In this essay I will present some naturalistic ways of thinking about the concept of God for those interested in that framing. Please note the following is only one way of framing God, even within Naturalism, but it should serve as an example of how a Naturalist might consistently speak of the concept, and to what end.

Between debates over the existence of God, whether or not God is a person is a matter of frequent debate. A personal God will be one that thinks or reasons, has opinions, makes decisions, has intentions, and takes actions much as we do. An impersonal God will be some kind of entity (possibly even a being depending on how tight one’s definition of a ‘being’ is), but would not reason, opine, decide, or express a will as persons do. An impersonal God might still have other traits commonly attributed to God, such as: immanence (being present in all places and in all things), being the source of existence or a ‘first cause’, being the source of creativity, and/or being the motivating impetus guiding all activity in the universe.


What is a Person?

Before we approach the question as to whether or not God is a person, we should avoid a common pitfall. That is, we should first define our terms. We should be sure we know (a) what a person is, and (b) whether we are persons; and in precisely what sense.

A fascinating fact about the word ‘person’ is that it was not always used as it is used today. The Latin word persona or Greek prosopon originally meant ‘mask’ as the masks worn by actors on stage. The Greeks had no concept comparable to ‘person’ as we use the word today[1]. It was in Christian philosophy, from the 1st to 6th Centuries C.E., that the modern way of thinking about persons and using the word first evolved. Tertullian (160 C.E. – 225 C.E.) was the first to describe the doctrine of the Trinity and in so doing, described God as being three persons. In retrospect, this seems to be a much easier concept to grasp when thinking of these three as different masks or faces of God, as the term had been used up to that time. But by the 6th Century, Boethius was describing a person more like we think of the term today: as “an individual substance of a rational nature” or “that which possesses an intellect and a will”[2].

And so, today the natural human tendency to think of ourselves as a single unchanging continuous being is aided by our use of language such as with the word person. But why didn’t the ancient Greeks have a similar term? Even their word, nous (the faculty of intelligence), was not truly consistent with the concept of personhood. The answer may lie in many of the similarities found between ancient Greek thought and Eastern thought on our nature. These thoughts turn out to be quite compatible with a modern natural understanding of the mind, and may light our way.

In Buddhism, the Hindu concept of the Atman (the ‘self’) was explicitly rejected. The Buddhist concept of no-self (Anatta) describes the nature of the ego as a delusion[3]. In reality, our sense of self emerges from a collection of aggregates. That is, we have memories, we have ideas, we have the ability to make selections, we have feelings – but there is no single one of these qualities that we can point to and say, “that is me”. In modern terms, we would say that a person is an emergent property – a result of a complex system of different functions operating together, interactively and simultaneously. When these aggregates disperse, the emergent property ceases to be. Simmias’ lyre has been broken and the attunement has vanished[4].

In ancient Greek Stoicism, this is the difference between something that exists and something that subsists. In Stoic (and Naturalist) thought, only material bodies exist. Other things subsist upon the interaction of those bodies – such as democracy, persons, meanings, and so on[5].

So, before we worry about whether God exists, perhaps we should figure out whether we exist.


The Natural Soul

As René Descartes famously observed, obviously we are – in some form. But to be precise, we as persons, seem to subsist among or upon the complex interactions of our brain functions. To a large degree, our unitary personhood is an illusory abstraction – a convenient convention; a way of framing reality in order to make sense out of the world that is useful to us. More literally, the edges of what is ‘us’ and what is our body or our environment becomes frustratingly fuzzy under close examination. That is not even to approach the question of when we stop being us as we undergo changes through experience over time!

In much of ancient Greek philosophy, talk of the soul and its nature was considered a physical investigation. Platonic idealism aside, they imagined themselves and everything to be a part of one whole interrelated material universe – with even the gods subject to natural laws. Yet there was an obvious distinction between animate matter and inert matter. Why did some things move under their own power and other things not?

In Phaedo, Socrates debates with others about the nature of the soul – not its existence. That’s because, at the time, the word ‘soul’ was kind of like the phrase ‘dark matter’ today. In cosmology, we know there is a large amount of something in the universe unaccounted for in our observations, but which must be there due to its gravitational influence on the visible matter. So, we use the phrase ‘dark matter’ as a place-holder for “whatever that stuff is”. It could be neutrinos, or some exotic multi-dimensional phenomena, or simply material that doesn’t reflect enough light for us to detect, or some combination of many such things. There is no debate over whether dark matter exists because that is self evident. The debate is over what we are really referring to when we use the term. This was the same state of the concept of the “soul” in ancient Greece – a placeholder for “whatever that quality is which allows animate matter, such as with people”. There was no question souls existed – that was self evident because some kind of quality existed in the living that was clearly absent in a dead body. The debate was over what we mean when we use the term; or rather, the nature of the soul[6].

And, if one reads these discussions and treatises on the soul carefully, one will find they tend to sound a lot more like speculations over the physiological workings of the brain and mind, than anything like the supernatural ghost-like concept with which Christianity would later associate the term. Democritus believed the soul was made out of atoms[7]. If we, as Spiritual Naturalists today, wish to use any of these words in a way that is meaningful to our worldview, then it is reasonable to pick up where the Greek philosophers left off, albeit with some more precise concepts of the soul/ego/person as an emergent property – a pattern of activity within a complex system which subsists on, and springs out of, the workings of its material components. If we are to follow that line of inquiry that predates supernaturalized Christian concepts, then we can rightfully say this is the nature of the true soul.


God as the Soul of the Universe

Now that we have some concept of what we mean when we say soul or person – this abstraction; this emergent property subsisting on the disbursed complex interactions of aggregate materials and functions according to natural law – we can now turn toward thinking about the concept of God in a consistent manner. God was thought by the Stoics and others as the soul of the universe. Just as we have that quality which allows us to be animate under our own power, so too does such a quality obviously exist in Nature as a whole. We can see it all around us: the rustling of the trees in the wind, the flowing of the rivers, the motions of the stars, and so on. It is one thing to describe the formulae of natural laws static on the page but the universe is actually moving in accord with those descriptions, acting them out. And, surely, there is some cause to the universe, even if it is some persistent source of this whole space-time continuum and not a linear cause that requires a time dimension.

If we return to these fundamental notions of God then the word returns to us as a place-holder so that we might regain some humility; acknowledging our vast ignorance and limitations in knowing what God is. Like early discourses on the soul – there can be no debate over whether this God exists (or, rather, subsists), which is self evident, but only upon the nature of God. Thomas Jefferson did not believe the laws of nature were ever violated. He was a deist but said, “of the nature of this being we know nothing.”


On the Nature of God

While the Greeks referred to the soul of the universe, others consider God to be an embodiment of truth, beauty, and goodness. A ‘first cause’ or ‘source of all’ has been a classical aspect. I have made, in “Do you believe in love?” a case that the Christian Bible includes early passages that saw God as synonymous with love or even physics[8]. Recently, Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution!, has suggested that God is Reality[9]. Theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, in Reinventing the Sacred, suggests that God be considered the inherent creativity in the universe; that is, the inherent tendency of matter to organize into higher orders of complexity and diversity[10].

Fair enough, but none of these proposals for the nature of God answer the million dollar question: is God a person like us? Common traits we imagine include: agency, self-awareness, opinions, a notion of past and future including making plans, and possibly even the possession of rights and duties – in other words, providence.

I could go through each of these and, looking carefully at their definitions, and make an argument. What is ‘agency’, really, to we naturalist who believe that the human brain operates by the same laws of physics as the cosmos? Self-awareness could be looked at from an information-processing perspective, in which case we might imagine that some forms of information about itself may lie within many complex systems. Even regarding notions of the past and future and making of plans, one trait of dynamic adaptive complex systems is that they have some ability to form internal models of their environment, predict the future, and react to it. This includes many systems outside human brains, and even outside biological life[11]. Here, even speaking in scientific terms, we cannot help but use words like “predict”.

Yet on each count the conclusion of these arguments would leave us unsatisfied. The result would seem a mere trick of language or equivocation. Philosopher Charles Taylor has said, rather, “What is crucial about agents is that things matter to them. We thus cannot simply identify agents by a performance criterion.”[12] This speaks to the subjective experience. We can make all kinds of arguments about the larger complex system that is the universe, and see that its systems and operation match our own in ways that are surely to be more than mere analogy. But do things matter to the universe; or rather, to its ‘soul’?

Philosopher David Chalmers has noted the distinction between what he calls the ‘easy question of consciousness’ and the ‘hard question of consciousness’. The easy question is answering how consciousness works when we think about it merely in terms of function. A person is poked on the hand with a needle, we follow the neurological response up the arm, into the brain where we trace all of the physical processes eventually leading to a scream. Or, we describe all of the neurological functions of perception and memory. This answers how data can be manipulated and affect a system which reacts to it – and we see (arguably) similar processes in other complex systems.

Yet, this doesn’t answer the hard question, which refers to the fact that all of that machinery yields something it doesn’t need to in order for all of those processes to function: it yields a first-person experience. In other words, there is “something it is like” to be a human mind. This subjective experience of being is called qualia. The hard question of consciousness is why any physical system, no matter how complex, should ever produce a first-person feeling of like-ness or qualia[13]. For all we know of physics, all of these atoms and neurons and brain could function just the same, including a self-awareness and high level decision-making and reasoning, and yet have no first-person sense of being. So why do we? And, does this first-person qualia arise in other complex systems (including possibly the universe) – even if only in degrees? Human brain injuries have shown there are a variety of kinds and degrees of consciousness possible.

I’ve conversed over email with Chalmers and at one point he wrote to me, “Are you asking if a thermostat might be experiencing some rudimentary form of qualia? We can’t really say.” Chalmers has suggested in his work that perhaps consciousness or qualia does emerge in any sufficiently complex system to various degrees. And, as he suggests, perhaps this is a fundamental property of the universe. In other words, like the basic forces or the rules of logic and math, this is simply how the universe operates fundamentally. If true, that would mean there is no more explanation or sub-causes for the emergence of consciousness in complex systems than there is an explanation for why space-time or physical laws of any kind exists. If so, this says something remarkable about the universe – that humans and higher animals aren’t the only systems around us experiencing a first-person sense of being, even if only a rudimentary form of experience.

I have learned of, and studied in detail, a remarkable theory written by neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi. It is called the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness. The IIT is a model that seeks to explain exactly how, and in what kinds of interactive conditions, consciousness arises in a system; and provides a means by which consciousness might be mathematically measured. When applied to human brains, it would seem to explain such things as why changes in brain activity when we are in dreamless sleep produce a drop in consciousness. Interestingly, the model also shows how different ‘consciousnesses’ can arise at different nested scales. That is, one consciousness could be a sub-component of a system that is itself conscious, with the two not being conscious of one another[14]. The implications of IIT may prove to be astounding in both science and philosophy. However, while this may indicate a ‘universe of consciousness’[15], it still leaves us wondering how these consciousnesses may relate to us.

Another (much simpler) way to look at the self-awareness of the cosmos is to consider its parts. When we speak of ourselves as self-aware, it is taken for granted that we do not imply that every particle of our bodies and brains is, on its own, self-aware. We know this refers, not even to our brain, but to certain subsets of it, and even then only at certain times and in certain ways. To be consistent, then, If we know that we are self-aware, and we know that we are a part of the universe, then it could be said that the universe is self-aware. As Carl Sagan said, “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”[16]

And, even if we could somehow know whether anything matters to God, that still wouldn’t tell us if we mattered to her/him/it. Even supposing different orders of consciousness and qualia arise within many other complex systems throughout the cosmos, or even in the cosmos as a whole; this says nothing of that being’s caring, plans for, or even awareness of us. And, in reality, it is that relationship with such a being that those who hope for a personal God seek.


Limitations of a Reasoning Being

Ultimately, in the face of such questions, this can only draw the sincere thinking person back to a state of humility. This is why we strive to have humility in our approach to knowledge and claims. Technically, you don’t even know that your fellow human beings experience qualia; you only know their function. So, the matter becomes even more unknown as we move out to systems further and further from human function. We should therefore be conservative in our assumptions and err on the side of humility, consideration, and compassion toward those of all beliefs. Whatever the nature of God, and whether we use the word or not, the awesomeness and beauty of life and the universe are plenty to justify reverence and a recognition of the sacred.

And, with a humble and honest heart, it becomes more apparent that in all our claims, we are really saying more about ourselves than God. Reason is a wonderful human ability, but it is a tool specifically necessary to limited beings. Reasoning is what you do when you don’t have the answer and need to arrive at one. Reasoning is work. It suggests a linear progression from one state of mind, to another state which is superior in possessing more understanding than the previous state. But an all-knowing, ever-present, perfect entity should have no need to think about things, to figure anything out, or to arrive at conclusion. In such an entity, all conclusions would be simultaneously manifest. As the philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus said, “The gods know all things and therefore have no need of reasoning.”[17]

A person is a limited thing, of limited knowledge, and therefore must employ senses and reason to make its way in a larger landscape that lies beyond its control and perception. Buddhist practitioners spend their time trying to escape from that abstraction, the ego. Why would we want to bottle up God into that same limited prison of personhood?

We like to make things into persons so that we can better understand them, relate to them, and talk about them; such as when we personify devices, the weather, etc. Even legally, we make corporations into persons in order to attach certain legal concepts upon them, such as responsibility, liability, rights, and so on. But these extensions are examples of our own limitations – not the limitations of the things to which we poetically, legally, or philosophically ascribe personhood.


Personal or Non-personal?

So a non-personal God then? Not exactly. When we combine the Eastern view of a ‘person’ as an abstraction with the Western notion of God as the soul of the universe, we see that one could say neither the human ego (self/soul/Atman) nor God exists; that they are both a convenient convention. Or, we could say that both of them exist – because both personae are in the same subsisting boat. If it serves our purposes to suppose that we exist as a person, or a legal entity exists, or a personified quality of an object exists; then perhaps it is no greater crime to suppose a God does (so long as we do not proceed to imagine ourselves its spokesperson). But one aim of our practice is to understand Reality as it is, and to be free of attachments – and down that path lies a dissolution of all abstractions. What is left is a grand, unified, interconnected and ever-changing tapestry. It is everywhere, it operates according to an underlying rational order, and it includes all things existing and all beings subsisting. This is Nature – though it has many masks (prosopon).

And so you ask me, “Do you believe in God?” By the most common conception of God, I qualify as an atheist – lacking theism in that sense, and an agnostic, as I don’t claim to hold the opposite belief that one couldn’t possibly exist. I don’t generally use either the A-word or the G-word (even poetically) in reference to my beliefs. But it should now be clear why that question is impossible to answer. None of us knows what we’re talking about when we utter that simple three-letter word. And, any of several subtle iterations of its use could produce a myriad of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to the same question. While there is value to consideration of our perspectives, too much nitpicking or argument on this topic could easily be an example of distractions to our spiritual practice, on which I have previously written.

The theist and the nontheist are but two simple creatures clinging to a speck of dust in a vast ocean, arguing about things far beyond their comprehension, using mere symbols comically incapable of describing them. Yet, at the same time, it should also be clear that both can see themselves in a rich, wondrous, mysterious, meaningful, and joyful universe – approaching life with humility, reverence, and compassion. Both can have a spirituality and a spiritual practice. Both not only can seek truth, beauty, and goodness; but can create it. They can do this, if they will not allow themselves to be imprisoned by place-holder words or separated by walls of their own making.

Love one another, and God will take care of himself.



Many thanks to Rick Heller, B.T. Newberg, and Kevin Leonard on their thoughts and input on this essay.



1. Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), Aloys Grillmeier, 1975.

2. Catholic Encyclopedia, Leonard Geddes, 1911.

3. “Is there an Eternal Soul?” What Buddhists Believe, Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera.

4. In Plato’s book of Phaedo, the character of Simmias offers an argument to Socrates for the nature of the soul. In it he analogizes the soul to an attunement played on an instrument, which is produced by the activity of the instrument’s components and ceases to exist when the instrument is destroyed. This is the closest of the scenarios presented in Phaedo to what we would today imagine the function of a mind in naturalistic terms.

5. 32 Principal Doctrines of the Stoa, p.4, Erik Wiegardt, 2005.

6. Phaedo, Plato.

7. A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, 1945.

8. “Do you believe in Love?” DT Strain.

9. Thank God for Evolution! Michael Dowd.

10. Reinventing the Sacred, Stuart A. Kauffman.

11. Complexity: the Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, M. Mitchell Waldrop.

12. “The Concept of a Person”, Philosophical Papers. Volume 1, Charles Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 98-102.

13. Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness, David Chalmers, 1995.

14. Integrated Information Theory: A Provisional Manifesto, Giulio Tononi.

15. Universe of Consciousness is the title of a book that Tononi co-authored.

16. Episode 1: “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (television program), Carl Sagan.