For a majority of religious people on Earth today, insofar as most religious people are adherents of some form of theism, God is a personal being or divine personality who watches over them, loves them preferentially (that is to say, more than other people), commands their obedience, covets their worship, and will reward them with everlasting life for being right after they die.
In other words, their God is a lot like them.
This similarity is not a coincidence. For a reason that hardly any theist can understand much less admit, their God is a projection of themselves, as they are a reflection of their God. The orthodox doctrine on the matter states that humans were made “in the image and likeness” of God, their Creator.
As you would expect, theists enthusiastically embrace the idea that they are reflections of God, although they are curiously reluctant to defend it on behalf of all humans. On the other hand, as far as the idea of God-as-projection is concerned, every true believer will passionately reject it as atheism.
The evidence for it is overwhelming nonetheless. When theists announce their condemnation of others whose identity, lifestyle, religion, or politics is different from their own, and further invoke the judgment of God to back them up, we can see a little too much of them in their image of God. And, as is probably more common, when these same believers languish in shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression because they find it impossible to please or placate God’s demands, the resemblance is undeniable.
A closer look will reveal (i.e., pull back the veil on) how much they deploy those same manipulative and abusive strategies in their own family systems.
I am proposing to coin a new term for this interesting polarity, of ego-as-God’s-reflection and God-as-ego’s-projection: Egod.
The personal God or divine personality of theism is, phenomenologically speaking (i.e., from inside the believer’s experience), a projected image – cleansed, refined, exalted and glorified – of proclivities and potentialities in the believer’s own personal life.
The projected God of righteousness and vengeance finds its reflection in the believer who is self-righteous and unforgiving. By the same dynamic, but now in reverse, one who believes in a God that is loving and generous will tend to reflect those same virtues in his or her personal life.
This is, in fact, the design intention of theism as a type of religion. Ideally it is meant to produce a kinder and more compassionately engaged believer. But the psycho-mechanism of Egod frequently gets plugged up and starts to rupture in frustration, bigotry, and spasms of social violence.
It may sound as if I’m on the way to making a case for atheism. If Egod is at the center of theistic religion but is nothing but a polarity of images – God a projection of the ego, and ego the reflection of its God – then isn’t that effectively denying the objective existence of God? Insofar as atheism denies the objective existence of God, it would seem so. It should be noted, however, that our analysis of theism above was based in the believer’s experience (phenomenology) and not on the question of God’s existence (ontology).
Atheism is actually the younger sibling of theism. For the longest time, theists didn’t even think to question God’s existence, since the entire edifice of culture was built on a foundation of sacred stories (myths), suspended by a network of religious symbols, and ritually recreated in the sacraments, ceremonies, and high festivals of community life. Even though no one had (or ever has) literally encountered God as depicted in the myths, sacred art, and theology, they felt no need to defend God’s existence outside the imaginarium of belief.
It was only as this imaginarium began to lose relevance and power, by a conspiracy of both external and internal changes, that the objective existence of God had to be decided. Science and technology were requiring significant updates to the ancient cosmology, while moral progress and creative authority were bringing about a new psychology of individual freedom and agency.
Those who could no longer breathe inside a religious culture of theism declared themselves atheist (a-theos, “no god”) and chose to leave, while many more doubled-down on their devotion to Egod – who was now not only in their myths but also at large (somewhere) in the real world.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this crisis moment opened two distinct paths of spiritual breakthrough, represented in the prophetic and mystical turns beyond the conventional orthodoxy of Egod.
The prophets spoke of, and more importantly spoke for (pro-phetes), what the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich named the “God above god,” where the case change signifies a transcendental move beyond Egod to the ultimate reality of being-itself. Unanimously, the biblical prophets railed against the idols of orthodoxy as human creations (or projections) that only served the petty and selfish interests of believers.
The God of the prophets is so far above the Egod of orthodoxy as to encompass all nations, all religions, and even to transcend existence itself. According to them, one’s devotion to God is not authenticated in ritual performances of worship, but instead in compassionate acts and ethical advocacy on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and suffering of the world. In light of their exhortation to break past the ego and ego’s god (i.e., Egod), prophetic spirituality is properly regarded as a form of post-theistic religion.
A second path of spiritual breakthrough, and therefore a second form of post-theistic religion, is represented in the Wisdom writings of the Bible. It would be centuries before these authors and visionaries were recognized as mystics, but mystics they were. If the prophets split open Egod and then transcended ego’s god to the God above god, these mystics took the ego half of the split and plunged deep into its grounding mystery, to the inner Ground of Being.
Breaking below ego means breaking past one’s social identity and personal beliefs, down through the inner reaches of subjectivity and into the generative mystery of consciousness itself. Such a descent doesn’t require the renunciation of Egod, only the release of all that makes the ego separate and special – including, of course, its god.
Not just glory and shame (feeling especially good or bad: see the halo and shadow of Egod in the illustration above), but every secret craving and private thought of self-regard that folds consciousness upon itself in self-conscious reverie, needs to be left behind on the way to perfect solitude and inner peace.
This short meditation is intended as not only a brief excursion into post-theism (prophetic and mystical religion), but also as an invitation for theists to look closely and critically at orthodoxy and the way it protects Egod from healthy criticism – and it can be such an emotionally charged defense to breach!
Too many have succumbed to the false security of conviction offered by fundamentalism (a reductionist and radicalized orthodoxy). If orthodox theism has lost (or is losing) relevance and power, the really good news (gospel) is that a higher wholeness (in God) and a deeper oneness (in the Ground) is possible.
Hey, it’s in the Bible. Check it out.