There are options for those who are not interested in religion. One of them is secular syntheism; the belief that gods are made up and you, personally, are fine without them.
Since I worship a god, I am not a secular syntheist. However, I believe that a healthy and modern religion should be capable of understanding the secular space and respecting it. Not everyone needs religion after all. Looking at a secular person from a religious perspective and recognizing them as valid is an important part of maintaining a just world.
Being “secular” probably means the person adheres to a liberal philosophy about how the world should function: that human rights, democracy, rule of law, and freedom are important parts of a good world. To that end, civil space is “secular” in that it does not privilege one religion over another. If a person is secular then they are nonreligious. A secular syntheist then, is a nonreligious person who holds the concrete belief that gods are constructed.
Secular Dinner Party
Suppose a syntheist, agnostic, atheist, and anti-theist are all seated together at a secular dinner party. Each views themselves as “secular” individuals, which is why they were invited. They all get along during the party, chatting about various trivialities. As they were enjoying the last few bites of their meal, the host decides to stir the pot by asking them all if the Christian God is real as Christian doctrine describes Him.
The anti-theist, scowling, speaks up first. They say that the Christian God is a lie told to control people. It is nothing but superstition wielded by unjust hierarchies to oppress and drive the masses in support of corrupt leaders.
The atheist scratches their chin and agrees that, no, the Christian God does not exist as they describe Him and that neither is He real in any other capacity. They gesture to the resolute lack of evidence that such an entity exists, or that it is at all distinct from natural phenomena.
The agnostic, dabbing their face with a napkin, responds airily that a person cannot know all things about the nature of the universe and they are no exception. Perhaps the Christian God exists, perhaps not. Therefore, it is not for them to say one way or another. He may or He may not. There is no way to sufficiently answer the question.
Now, our secular syntheist, perhaps after sneezing and cleaning their nose, says that the Christian God does, in fact, exist and that there is sufficient evidence to support it. However, they stress that the Christian God does not exist in the way that Christians believe that He does. He is not the omnipotent creator of time and space, but is rather, a social construction. Christians make the Christian God, not the other way around.
The anti-theist would agree initially, arguing that it is made up for the sake of control. Without disagreeing, the syntheist would emphasize that, yes, while gods can be used to control people, they also emerge organically from folk beliefs. The relationship of a god to their worshippers isn’t always top-down, even in an institution the anti-theist might consider oppressive. While the agnostic nods over a sip of wine, the atheist and anti-theist counter that even if a god is not used oppressively, it still constitutes a superstition and should be overcome by rationality. The secular syntheist, being secular, would agree, but also feels that there is something precious about gods and religion as a facet of human expression. The art, philosophy, music, dances, and structure all seem important. They muse that there is more to life than just rational understanding of facts, and that religion speaks to that larger expanse of human experience.
These guests might squabble for a few minutes before dessert, slowly coming to the realization that they actually agree and are just using different ways of saying the same answer: they all belong in a secular space. But once the cheesecake is brought out they all finally shut up.
All in all, to be a secular syntheist is to roughly agree with an agnostic or atheist, but to emphasize the construction of gods over other aspects. They probably also feel that religion has a right to exist, though they are not interested in being a part of one.
Listening to Theists
An important quality of secular syntheism is in practical posture. By the nature of their belief, they will interact with religion differently than an agnostic or atheist.
The syntheist would look around at the kaleidoscopic variety of gods and notice them as valid, influential entities. The influence of these gods, they reason, wouldn’t be due to any innate supernatural power, but due to the influence of their believers. However, this secular syntheist would have no desire to be a part of these groups. They would see them as distant, anthropological entities; interesting to be sure, powerful perhaps, benign hopefully, dangerous possibly, but not worth getting tied up in. What is critical about this position is that they are fully capable of listening to someone who is excited about their spiritual path with a god. They can understand this excitement as an expression of the theist’s relationship with themselves and their community. No offence would be taken, no correction need be administered. The syntheist is capable of enjoying, sympathetically, the spiritual path their friends and family are on.
I believe this position is attractive because it avoids the antagonistic position necessary to call oneself an “atheist” and moves past the distance of calling oneself an “agnostic.” A secular syntheist would probably be a naturalist through and through, only recognizing the most tangible realities. This gives them the certainty necessary to enjoy a stable worldview unlike an agnostic, while also dismissing them quietly from the anti-theism that animates so much atheistic discourse. Where an atheist begins with the statement, “God(s) do not exist” and would say, “your god is made up”, to support it, a secular syntheist would simply say, “sure your god exists, and it is also made up,” and go on with their day. While a theist might take the statement as an insult, a syntheist would not intend it as one. They would simply be stating a respectable fact. To a syntheist, believing a god is made up puts it in the company of many other powerful entities like countries, governments, organizations, and so on. In their mind, a god exists within human limitations. As long as believers behave themselves there’s nothing to worry about. So for the secular syntheist, there is no need to attack theism because it is a valid form of human expression.
Contrast this to an anti-theist who sees gods as superstitions and even lies. We can see the effect of this on atheist communities, where they constantly position themselves against theists; they define themselves negatively. Many try valiantly to redefine atheism in a positive framing, emphasizing their relationship to rationality and science. But it always comes back to antagonism against gods. After all, rationality is used by theists regularly just with different premises, and the scientific method doesn’t say anything one way or the other about the validity of gods. So the atheist and anti-theist always return to the resistance of religion and gods. The result is that they struggle to listen. A family member or friend who turns to them in the middle of a spiritual epiphany is inevitably met with a struggle. Even if the atheist doesn’t say anything, they will inevitably wrestle with whether they should correct the superstition before them.
An agnostic, if they remain as such for any period of time, maintains a distance from the whole affair. Philosophically this serves them well and it makes them pleasant to be around, but they purposefully avoid taking a stance. When it comes to religion and spirituality, the agnostic would struggle to listen just like the atheist. Knowing already that nothing can be known, the agnostic just waits through the testimonies of their spiritual relatives or friends. If anything, they would change the subject to the political or scientific spheres.
But the secular syntheist can listen. They have a framework which allows spirituality and religion to be valid. A testimony by a friend can be understood as part of their human experience, something valuable to them and therefore valuable to the syntheist. The syntheist can play along with their friend or family, inhabiting their world for a little bit. The relationship can be made stronger.
A secular syntheist is free from theological restrictions. Not only from theism, but also from atheism. The theist is confined by their doctrine, but the atheist is also confined by their refusal of doctrine; both necessarily see the rest of the world as invalid. But secular syntheism allows for validity to be found anywhere. By looking at spirituality and tradition as man-made, syntheism refocuses its attention on people. The validity of a practice or journey isn’t compared to some doctrine or lack thereof, but rather, it is examined in the light of its use to the person. If a person is benefiting by their sincere belief, then the syntheist will happily support them. Likewise, if the belief is doing harm, the syntheist will try to redirect them. What matters isn’t the logic or the theoretical premises, but rather, the utility to the practitioner. This is true for others, or even for the secular syntheist themselves.
Many people do not need a religious community to be fulfilled and happy. Enjoying a distance from religious communities gives them the opportunity to focus on other parts of their life. While hopefully maintaining spiritual health, they can get along just fine without a religious community. This is an important facet of spiritual diversity; the recognition of those who simply don’t need religion.
But even if they are not religious, a person can still be spiritual. Secular people may still practice spirituality. The secular syntheist is free to do with their spirituality whatever they please. To look at the world through a syntheist lens is to look at it anthropologically, to see it as a researcher or a philosopher would. Tools, pieces, and functions are revealed when someone approaches spiritual groups this way. Spirituality is then liberated. No longer does the secular syntheist need to negotiate with the void as an atheist would, since they can take value from any source that calls to them. Further, they aren’t burdened by supernatural thinking as theists are, allowing them to look clearly at their lives. Spirituality is elevated to an art, practised with found tools, and used towards any end the secular syntheist sees fit.
Terranism’s Place in a Secular World
Why do I develop Terranism if secular syntheism is an option? After all, we currently live in a predominantly secular world, where most countries maintain a secular space between religion and the state. Why not advocate for being secular rather than religious?
The first reason is that I find this fun. I love learning about how religion functions and applying my creativity to what I’ve learned. I find the occult endlessly fascinating and their aesthetics inspiring. And I find value in looking into my past and gleaning meaning from my religious experiences.
But all that aside, what might justify the existence of Terranism to a proud secular syntheist? More bluntly; why am I doing this when I could have remained secular?
There are some superficial reasons. Spirituality is difficult for one, and not everyone is good at it. So my experiences can be useful to people who don’t have the time or energy to do this. Another reason might be that syntheists would be more influential in the world as a bloc, and I feel that a world full of syntheists is a better one. It could even be the specific plans I have for Terranism: having a mental health professional available to the congregation; developing rituals where people role-play de-escalation and conflict resolution; cultivating community gardens, etc. Many of these goals are good and are worth pursuing.
But I think the real reason is that I want to have faith in a better future. In all honesty, I don’t really have hope right now. The world looks bleak to me. I see how geopolitics and climate change are progressing and it stresses me out. Our planet is, as a whole, going through a rough patch, and what that means for me as an individual (privileged as I am) is gloomy at best, cataclysmic at worst.
I’m not hopeful, but I can be faithful.
Faith to me is about action, diligence, and community. It’s about working towards goodness even if you have no hope in the future. I used to have that. When I was a Christian I was faithful to Christ. My whole belief was actually pure hopelessness at the time; I truly believed the end times were going to come and that all I loved would be destroyed. Despite all the nightmares and tears, I remained faithful because that’s how you deal with hopelessness. You do good.
At the time I was faithful to transcendence; the promise of utopia offered by a god. The world left behind. But nowadays I don’t believe in utopia or transcendence. I can’t leave the world behind, but I don’t think I even should.
My first nightmare of the Second Coming (the end of the world for those non-christians) came when I was a little kid. I was lifted up to heaven without any of my worldly possessions. But down on the ground my blanket and teddy bear were left behind. I struggled for the rest of my dream, trying to reach them again. For many years I interpreted that dream as an incriminating attachment to the world.
I’ve had dreams of leaving family behind. Leaving friends, homes, pictures, even food (those ones were mostly just irritating, I was in the middle of a bite!). All of them I interpreted as sinful worldliness.
When I became the one left behind, it felt like my doom was sealed. Utopia had no room for me. In that dream I had the mark of the beast; I was one with the monster. I spent years trying to overcome that doom; to let the world go.
But why? This world is worth saving. I like the dirt. I like the sky. I like the feeling of a deep breath. I love some good food. Drugs are fun. Sex is awesome. Hugs are even better. Being in love makes you soar. My spine is crooked, my feet are flat, my teeth wanna braid themselves in my mouth; wasp stings hurt, being lost in the wilderness is terrifying, watching your dad break his skull makes you feel numb, and getting your heart broken makes you wanna die. But without it I’m stardust floating in the universe. Without all that shame and pride and pain and joy, it’s just strumming on a heavenly harp until you’re blue in the face.
None of it matters unless we’re here.
So I’ve decided that I want to be faithful. I’ll be faithful to this world that made me who I am. I see Them and I am in awe. They are so powerful and They have so much potential. They are a traveller through space, searching for Truth, learning as They go. Some of Them are shaped like me, some of Them think like me, most of Them are nothing like me. We give Them names like “plant” and “animal” and “mineral” but They’re all here, holding each other together, travelling through the cosmos. And, blessing above all blessings, I am among Them. I get to travel through the stars with Them, as Them; We are blessed with a cosmic moment where we aren’t just the detritus of supernovae, but We get to watch supernovae. We get to be here, right now.
I will be faithful to that. No matter how hopeless it all feels, I want the faith to serve this world; to serve goodness; to serve Them.