What I Value: The Motivation of my Religious Practice
I divide my religious framework into three components - my knowledge, my values and my practice. That is - what I know, what I believe, and what I do. This post will go into detail around the values that inform my religion and how I derive value from a materialist viewpoint
I know there are those that believe that examining concepts like love, beauty, or art through the lens of science is cold, sterile, or robotic. I don’t feel feel that way - I find a sunset no less beautiful for the fact that I know its source is an unfathomably large ball of gas, burning millions of miles away. My knowledge of its origins does nothing to dim the light of its glow, and my ability to explain the physical processes involved does not reduce my sense of awe.
There is beauty in a world that was formulated by the realities of physics, just as there is beauty in this same world were it to be created in seven days by the spoken words of a deity. My belief that emotions like love or sorrow or joy are biological in nature is, to me, inconsequential - these things are still real and we still feel them. I laugh at jokes, cry at music, feel excitement and fear during movies.
I do not feel robbed of anything for lack of a supernatural origin to the universe. I do not accept the idea that morality, ethics, or altruism are impossible without a supernatural source. And I certainly do not believe that the emotions, hopes, fears, and dreams of humanity are lessened by their physical nature. As far as I’m concerned, the wonder and power of the world is not up for debate, and thus the perspective that a scientific origin might undermine that beauty is mostly confusing. The power and beauty of the universe is obvious - in some ways its origin is inconsequential.
Building on the Foundation
With materialism as my foundation, I derive my subsequent beliefs and ideas from the realities of the human experience and the consequences of our physical world. Over time, I have compiled a set of beliefs I center in my religious practice, which are described below.
These beliefs are derived a variety of sources - the realities of human emotion; the vast corpus of philosophy, religion, and civil discourse that humankind has produced; my own perspective on things. They are subject to change as new information and understanding comes to light, although I find them relatively flexible and accommodating. Most importantly: they represent my central tenants of belief. Maybe they describe yours, more than likely they don’t quite fit. I am not declaring scripture here, I’m sharing what moves and motivates me and how I see the world. These tenets form the foundation of how I translate materialism into meaning and represent what are best described as my core religious beliefs.
Each individual is the arbiter of meaning, value, and purpose in their life, and no one has the right to dictate those things to others.
This principle stems from my own experiences raised in Evangelical Christianity, and my experiences with Catholicism after college. I never had a time where my value system was not dictated to me externally. In my experience, most religions declare themselves the authority on what is important, what is moral, what reality actually looks like. So you are told what to value and what matters with little room to determine these things for yourself. And if you come to the conclusion that something is important or valuable to you, but your religion declares otherwise? Well, you are expected to change to suit the standards set forth by the religion and handle that cognitive dissonance on your own.
I reject this notion that we are necessarily subject to external frameworks of meaning constructed by others. Instead, I elevate Authority as an inherent right, power, and responsibility of every person. Everyone has the right and the ability to decide what matters in their life and what has value.
Ethics and morality, our emotions, how we spend our time, what we fight for - these things are subject to the Authority of the individual. Oftentimes they overlap with societal or group norms, values, etc. - the important part is not that these things are distinct to the individual, because they may not be, but that they are purposefully, intentionally, and freely chosen rather than coerced or compelled.
Identity is the prerogative of the individual. A person has the right to declare their identity and to have that identity acknowledged and respected.
Self-determination is an extension of Authority outside of the bounds of the self and into the realm of society. Our identities serve as a form of interface with the world - through them, we tell others the way they should see us, we express what is important to us, and we cement our own Authority in relation to others.
Identity is a powerful construct. It is a wellspring of power to be tapped. It can be weaponized against marginalized groups. It can unify or destroy groups, change entire societies for better or worse. Ultimately self-determination is one of the ways our Authority manifests in the world, and thus is to be honored.
This tenet is distinct from I. Authority in that it describes the way Authority is to be expressed to others inside of society. Authority dictates that we are the creators and cultivators of our interior landscape. Self-determination dictates that we have the right to impose that Authority on others to the extent that they interact with that interiority.
III. Collective responsibility
We are individual nodes, operating in a human network. We have responsibilities to others by virtue of our position in this network.
There are entire branches of philosophy dedicated to ruminating on the rights, responsibilities, and obligations between members of a society. Essentially, I take seriously the notion that we are all connected - from small groups, up through to the whole human species. It is foundational to my practice that I do what I can to respect the will and fate of others to the extent that they do the same. Practically speaking, this means that I consider the impact my actions will have on others.
This tenet is particularly ambiguous - the more rigid its codification, the less adaptable it is to the constant shifting of societal norms, human culture, and specific situations. I am more than comfortable with the ambiguity - what is important to me is that I do my best to benefit others when possible.
Tenets I. Authority and II. Self-determination, unrestrained, describe a world in which there are no standards of behavior apart from the individual. Tenet III. Collective Responsibility forms the counterbalance to this expansive personal freedom.
Not every value system is equal, and behaviors that are harmful to others should have consequences. To this end, Authority and Self-determination are balanced by Collective Responsibility. This concept is hopefully internalized by the individual as a result of being raised inside of a society - but if it is not, the society has the right to enforce this notion of responsibility and protect the collective from those who violate it (a nuanced topic that encompasses an entire branch of philosophical thought and is far beyond the scope of this post).
IV. Cvltvs Hominem
Humanity possesses unique capabilities of intellect, reasoning, abstraction, and creativity. This spark of human sentience is to be venerated and revered.
I half-jokingly refer to this as “Cultus Hominem” - the Cult of Humanity. I am inspired by the arc of human history - our development of technology, language, art, culture. We have walked on the moon. We have sent robots to Mars. We have created devices capable of near-instantaneous communication around the world, cured diseases, and created art of stunning and terrifying beauty. I do not believe in the divine, but I do believe that the human intellect is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
This is not to say that I believe that it is inherently good. Humans have used their intellect to commit terrible atrocities, as well. But this sense of respect focuses on the inherent capability of humanity to wield this power - it can be used for good or for evil, but it is powerful nonetheless.
The individual’s interior landscape is vast, and meditative and contemplative practices allow us to journey to its farthest reaches.
My religion looks inward - I believe that the numinous is contained in our minds. Although it is prescriptive, meditation and contemplation - both forms of reflection - are given a place of primacy in my belief system. I see self-inquiry not merely as a positive form of emotional processing, but as an obligation to myself and to others in society that I examine myself, my values, and my emotions and reinforce that which is good and discard that which does not serve me or humanity as a whole.
Voidcraft centers praxis, and does not solely rely on intuitive approaches to experiencing the numinous. Tools unused have no value.
I am not interested in religious belief without practice - what I consider to be “spirituality.” For many, spirituality is exactly what they’re looking for - an intuitive, loosely established cultivation of a sense of things. There is nothing at all wrong with this - but it doesn’t provide value for me. And so I establish a tenet that ritual practice is necessary.
This does not mean that there is “one” right way to do something - but it does mean that I draw a line in the sand with respect to what constitutes “living” my belief system. For me, ritual is the art of the religious experience, and so it becomes an intrinsic aspect of what it means for me to even have a religion.
Putting it into Practice
The above constitute the distillation of my worldview into a set of guiding principles by which I try to live. They are not right for everyone. But they don’t need to be right for everyone - Authority dictates that all of us live by our own set of principles, whether they be written in a formal creed or merely felt intuitively.
These principles relate to materialism at various levels of obviousness, but none of them strike me as at odds with the idea that we live in a strictly physical universe. Quite the contrary - I feel each one of the above principles is quite at home in a materialist universe. These principles are more than simply a worldview - they demonstrate the alchemy of transforming a non-theistic outlook into a framework for navigating human society and deriving meaning from materialism.