Useful Fictions

I am a scientist, an atheist, and a skeptic who does not believe in any form of the supernatural. Nonetheless, I consider myself a Quaker with a spiritual life that is constantly growing and changing.

I roomed with a Quaker in New York City during the late 1960s. I had occasional contact with the Friends he sometimes brought to our apartment, but I considered Quakerism to be no more than an agreeable, harmless cult. When he decided to move to Texas, I went to his last meeting with him out of loyalty to our friendship and not as part of any spiritual search. I felt oddly nourished by the experience and went back the following Sunday. I joined the Religious Society at Morningside Meeting in the mid-’70s and am now a regular attender at Acadia Meeting in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the God-language I was often exposed to. I still have problems translating heavily Christian messages into a form I can find spiritually meaningful. And of course I often wondered what a confirmed skeptic was doing in the midst of so many mystics. Nonetheless, it’s hard to stay a cucumber in a pickle barrel, and I embarked on a long journey of growing spiritual awareness that continues even today.

Connecting my spiritual life to the physical universe was relatively easy. I am an avid reader of science and enjoy finding out how, what, and why things work the way they do. It wasn’t a great stretch to incorporate a spiritual dimension to this love of learning. Recently I started characterizing it in terms of spiritual "gawking"—standing in awe of the beauty and complexity of creation, including the marvelous richness of the human experience, which makes me feel part of an enterprise so vast and wondrous that it transcends my individual part in it. "Worship" would be an acceptable synonym for "gawking."

Many of my spiritual insights—or metaphors—come from my reading of science. For example, consider the case of fungus: it’s everywhere! A substantial part of the arctic is covered with lichen—fungus living in symbiosis with algae. New research has shown that the root systems of many plants depend on their interaction with fungus to dissolve and incorporate nutrients. Indeed, not infrequently, a fungus invaginates the rootlets to such a degree that it is not much of a distortion to consider trees merely the photoreceptors of fungus colonies!

Fungi are so prevalent that they all overlap, forming what is perhaps a planet-wide network. Even when they are not in physical contact, perhaps fungi communicate through their tiny spores, which can be found at every level of the atmosphere—including the stratosphere! I can imagine slow, determined, and totally incomprehensible fungal messages pulsating through the biosphere, forming the woof and warp of the web of nature we often hear about but that is rarely particularized.

I doubt that such a network actually exists, or that it really sends messages. But such a notion is a "useful fiction." A useful fiction is a paradigm of the world that produces utilitarian results but may not have any basis in fact. For instance, it is a useful fiction to picture an atom as a miniature planetary system with electrons orbiting a nucleus of protons and neutrons. An atom isn’t anything like that, but the differences don’t matter much above the quantum level, and the illusion is useful in conceptualizing the structure and interaction of molecules.

For me, it is a useful fiction to "believe" that whatever is done to one part of the environment affects all of it through the mediation of benevolent fungi. Even though the truth of this is open to question, it serves to inform my unity with nature and my reverence towards all living things. When I pass a favorite copse, it is easier and simpler for me to relate to the fungus that holds it all together than to deal with whatever the reality may be. Even if I actually knew that reality, I doubt that would deepen my reverence.

The concept of the 100th monkey is another useful fiction, despite the fact it is demonstrably fraudulent. At a research station in the Pacific, certain monkeys learned to wash the sand off their yams. A reporter interviewing one of the scientists speculated that perhaps, once a certain number of monkeys (say, 100) learned this trick, suddenly some mysterious aura would propagate the knowledge to all monkeys. The researcher adamantly stated that this notion did not fit the facts. Nonetheless, the reporter included the idea in his article with only faint disclaimers. It was picked up by others, the disclaimers were dropped, and the paradigm of the 100th monkey was born.

Still, the 100th monkey is a useful fiction. Once a certain number of people subscribe to a novel idea, it seems to catch on everywhere. Since the actual mechanics of dissemination are difficult or impossible to describe, no great violence to the truth is done by thinking of it in terms of an expanding aura. There are many such auras, both positive and negative, most of them unrecognized or unknowable. The collective of positive auras are what I call "God." At times I have used circumlocutions such as "the Holy Spirit" or "the Light," but "God" makes it easier for me to receive the messages of other Friends—and perhaps for them to receive mine.

I remember once when I watched a leaf floating in a pond. I was able to identify seven distinct wave patterns that influenced the motion of the leaf—currents, if you will. I am like that leaf, subject to many currents, some of which I can identify, most of which I cannot. I see "God" as the sum total of all those currents that serve to nourish, sustain, and improve the quality and diversity of life. But, unlike the leaf, I am not completely passive. I can lend my strength to improve and empower those currents that are of God and oppose those that are contrary. However, I am severely bound by my own limitations and am ignorant of most of them.

When we gather in the silence of meeting, we perceive only a tiny portion of the electromagnetic currents in the room. These currents are analogous to "the Light" we Friends so often invoke, but we "see" only in the visible spectrum and even then only what we’re looking at. Nonetheless, the room is always full of TV and radio signals, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, cosmic rays, and a host of other influences that we can only perceive through the mediation of some device, such as a TV receiver. Even then, we are limited to one channel at a time.

For me, it is a useful fiction to think of God as those channels that add to the richness of life. Some of them are UHF, others VHF; some are in English but most are not. My own personal "TV set" can only pick up a limited number of transmissions. Fortunately, other Friends are receptive to channels that I miss. By our collective togetherness we can tune into a multiplicity of channels on which God broadcasts. Over time a coherent picture begins to emerge. Of course we will never get all the details right, but it is enough to stay tuned and keep listening.

It is hard for me to incorporate certain traditional religious concepts into this admittedly odd definition of spirituality. Take prayer, for example. Despite my skepticism, I joined a prayer group for a friend with inoperable brain cancer. I needed a useful fiction to inform my activity and concentrate my attention. Not surprisingly, I chose to hold my friend in the Light. Since he wasn’t a vegetable, it didn’t work for me to imagine something like a beam of sunlight falling on his head. Instead, I constructed an image of a bright current of golden nutrient fluid bathing my friend in nourishment and support, aimed at both his soul and the healthy tissue surrounding his illness. That current is another part of my definition of God, and my attempt to concentrate it in my friend’s direction was, to me, prayer.

When I shared this metaphor with the prayer group, one elderly Friend became very exercised. She believed that prayer produced auras or energy waves that work actual physical changes. To my mind, prayer works because the prayed-for knew he was not alone and that around-the-clock Friends were holding him in the Light. This counteracted feelings of isolation and hopelessness that often accompany terminal illness. It is easily demonstrated scientifically that people who feel loved and supported fare much better than those who do not.

Actually, I had no quarrel with the elderly Friend’s invocation of auras and energy waves. To me, they were useful fictions, and regardless of the means of transmission, the net effect of the prayer was the same, so why hassle the details? The elderly Friend took it upon herself to inform me of the error of my ways and pressed on me a magazine that purported to scientifically prove the efficacy of prayer. The "science" was absolutely horrible and only could have been believed in by someone naïve of the rigors of the discipline. Eventually we had to agree to disagree. Always the skeptic, I could easily frame prayer in mystical terms, while my mystical Friend stood firm in her "science."

I have no doubt that George Fox would disapprove of my theology, and I am most challenged by Christocentric messages. I did not have loving, supportive parents, so an appeal to an all-forgiving, parental figure leaves me cold. Even more so, the shepherd God of the 23rd Psalm strikes me as an unwelcome retreat from adulthood into the dependency of childhood.

So when Friends speak of Jesus, I need a useful fiction in order to appreciate their messages. I do not resonate to the image of the thin, bearded ascetic. The picture of the young Jesus holding the lamb is easier for me, except I see an even younger child with a rabbit instead of a lamb. They are standing in a beam of light, not unlike the one I see during prayer. To me, this child symbolizes trust, love, and protection of the innocence in nature. It represents another aspect of the beneficient spirit that, for reasons of brevity, I call "God."

When I employ this useful fiction, I imagine a spirit that identifies the trusting child inside of everyone, including (with some difficulty) myself. When I am faced with evil, arrogance, rudeness, stupidity, or someone in need, I try to see the other person as needing the services of this spirit. If I shine towards them brightly enough, the spirit will find that part of others that is either protective child or trusting rabbit and bring it to the fore. My scientific self would argue that the world responds positively to a Friendly attitude, but the useful fiction of a benevolent spirit at my beck and call is easier for me to engage. When others talk of Jesus, I think in terms of this spirit.

This may sound as if I have all of this at my fingertips, but I am far from it. For the most part, I am aware of my spiritual side only on widely separated occasions, such as meeting for worship. My challenge—my growing edge—is to somehow let my spiritual side inform more of my ordinary activities. So far I haven’t been very successful, but I’m still working on it.

I think it more than a passing oddity that a scientific, atheistic skeptic orders his world with icons of children, rabbits, nutrient-rich golden currents, healing auras, communicating fungus, and benevolent spirits. I’m sure I could construct scientifically valid, adaptively altruistic paradigms for each of them, but they would be bloodless and not particularly useful in the heat of the action of everyday living. My useful fictions, when I remember them, help me to live what others might call my "faith" or "religion"—to answer that of God in all.