John Hunt
9 min readJan 10, 2023



Even if everyone in the world decided they could believe in the same God and saw Him in the same way, even if we only had one sacred book, one temple, one church, and had done for the last 10,000 years; even if there were no atheists, no heretics, no believers in other religions; that wouldn’t prove anything about whether God is really “there” or not. Everybody could be wrong. We don’t, for instance (or at least most of us don’t, though there are many millions of animists, pagans and Shintoists who think otherwise), believe there are real spirits in trees and stones any longer, even though everyone in the world believed that for tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years. And any doctor will tell you that the brain can believe anything, even when the evidence of the senses contradicts it. None of us sees “straight.” We deceive ourselves. We all feel we have right and logic on our side. It’s in our makeup. We all fantasize, hope and fear. We fall into love, believe it’s forever, fall out of love, and then do it again.

Our minds are “recursive systems,” in the language of cognitive psychology. We not only watch ourselves “doing.” We think about what we’re doing, and then we think about what we’re thinking about. We shape our thoughts into ideas and images and ideologies. Then we analyze, and change them. We know there is no eternal, ideal perfection; we know, on our level of existence at least, that life is muddled, subjective, that we’re not even physically the same as we were yesterday, with every one of the 50 trillion or so cells in our bodies being replaced every seven years or so. Many on the spiritual journey have had the experience of peeling back layers of the mind, like an onion, and wondered: “What could I be thinking about if I could stop thinking? If I could get myself out of the way and just approach God? Or if I could somehow peel back all the layers, might there be nothing in the middle? And no God?” And the fear is that if we peel back too many layers we lose all sense of who we might be.

Some psychiatrists even suggest that schizophrenia (and there are more schizophrenics in Western Europe than regular churchgoers) is not due to a lack of rationality, but too much of it. We can’t bear too much reality, even if we could see it.

All we think of as valuable and real is like a dream dimly remembered in the morning. We can’t even be certain of what we see with our eyes, let alone what god we pray to in our heads. Bees, dogs, us, we all see the world differently; our limited and very different senses can take in only a small spectrum. Interpreting what we see is something different again. People who have been blind from birth and recover their sight don’t see cars, trees, houses, but a confusing jumble. Making sense of this is a process we learn. As newborns, we are helpless. We have an instinct to bond with people, to register responses and react in a way which benefits us. As we age we begin to exercise control over what we see by interpreting it. We build up layers of meaning, making symbols and images, imagining one thing in terms of another. For which we need help. The very few instances on record of abandoned children being brought up in the wild, without any human contact, suggest that if you don’t grow up in a network of relationships, you can’t grow up at all. When they come back into society, they can’t form attachments, can’t even learn to speak. Donald Winnicott in the twentieth century spoke of the young child developing its experience of being alive and real in mind and body by internalizing the love and care of its mother, so it becomes an inner presence, enabling further love and growth. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt elaborated later, as you grow, moving away from your parents, to be alone becomes a “two-in-one” condition. Winnicott described it as the True and False Self, much as Sigmund Freud had described it as the Ego and the Id, or Carl Jung and Carl Rogers the Real and Ideal Self. Eckhart Tolle, more recently, has reinterpreted it in spiritual terms as the egoic mind on the one hand and the conscious self on the other — the “real” you of the present moment. Whatever — it’s not difficult to have a personal relationship with an ideal or perfect person in your head, a “tulpa,” an imaginary friend for adults, whether Jesus or Shiva, any more than it is to have one with your self. You already have it. Indeed, it can be easier than having to deal with flesh and blood people, with their emotional and mental patterns different to your own, particularly when from other cultures.

As we age we continue to create identities at many levels. We’ve learned to search for fellow minds, and we look for signs of them everywhere. We see figures in the curtain design, or in clouds. Animal shapes in the trees. We look for causality, read patterns into events to make them better or worse than they really are. We lie for our own benefit, or even for that of others. We find reasons to be nice to people we don’t like. Experience is as much our perception of reality, interpreted in our heads, as the thing itself. The Vedantic philosophers figured this out five millennia ago (and influenced key European philosophers of the modern age like Schopenhauer when their works were made available in translation in the nineteenth century), calling the illusion of reality that we see maya.

This ability to project our imaginations on to the world around us and shape it to our desires has turned into our cumulative wisdom, instinctive and cultural, taking on myriad different shapes along the chain, handed down through the generations. Out of it in the last 70,000 years or so we’ve produced art, music, religion, politics, everything that makes us what we are. The “self” doesn’t figure all this out on its own. It’s created out of our collective definitions of what matters, which we inherit, and make our own.

At an individual level the relation of the “me” in here and the “world” out there forms an image in our brains. Some neurologists believe they’ve identified the part of it, nicknamed the “God-spot,” that sifts incoming data to enable us to distinguish between the two. (Similarly, some evolutionary psychologists suggest that beliefs in supreme beings are so widespread that they’re hardwired into the brain.) At times circumstances lead to moments of transcendence when the sense of “me” disappears. These can be occasioned by our own efforts, as in worship, meditation, fasting, through drugs, entheogenic plants, in dance, self-mutilation, sex — if you’re lucky. Music can also help achieve this, as can nature, love, art… religion simply makes a habit of it. Believing in God is a way of relating, a disciplined way of defining the space (or lack of it) between ourselves and the world. If you live in Washington or Tehran you probably see God as “out there,” a reality outside our heads, with a gulf in between, which we can only cross with His help. If you live in Paris or Peking you probably see this God as an illusion, and focus on the reality we think we can see, or that we can find within ourselves.

There’s no universal spiritual logic to all this. We don’t even have this “God-spot” equally. In some individuals the capacity is strong, in others weak. Some are driven to understand, others uninterested. Maybe they’re better off. It’s a mixed blessing. Saints and prophets, like great musicians and artists, are often on the borderline of breakdown, or over it. It’s inherited, and not completely under our conscious control; epileptics for instance can suffer from it severely; or it can be triggered by electrical impulses. But God-spot or not, it’s not hard to see how God, the embodiment of love (or, in some cases, evil) can also become an inner companion, like the love inherited from a parent. One easier to talk to, more “real,” than our neighbors, or even family.

We know today from scans that the changes in brain patterns produced by these beliefs are the same across all cultures and faiths. In other words, experiencing Krishna, or God, or Allah, or Odin, or Pan, or any of the other thousands or millions of gods, amounts to the same thing as far as the brain is concerned. To say, “I believe my religion alone is true,” is about as intelligent as saying, “I believe my local football/baseball team is incomparably better than any other — past, present or future.” No religious experience is more “real” than another, any more than it’s more real to love one person rather than another. Otherwise we would all love the same person, believe the same way. The questions are more whether we’ve found the right person to love, and the one who loves us. Whether we have a religion that feels true for us, and whether it’s a good one. Whether we can move forward in relationship, or whether we’re still stuck on the fence.

Religion is nothing special. It’s not something you do on Sundays, or in quiet times. It’s not something you can separate from loving, or living. It’s not different from washing the dishes, or dreaming at night. It’s not either “real” or “imaginary.” Both God as reality and imagination are just different ways of coming to terms with the polarization of the world into “me” and “it” that came with self-awareness. Maybe there’s just matter, and religion is a way of seeing it as miracle. Maybe it is a miracle. Some see it that way, others don’t. Maybe it’s like whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. Maybe it depends on whether you’re an intuitive or analytic thinker (intuitive thinkers are more likely to believe in God, in conspiracy theories, and to get sums wrong). It’s our response to life that determines what it means for us, rather than some unprovable definition of life itself. And for some, defining their lives as in the hands of God enables them to live better ones. We turn what we see into stories, and imagine better endings. We then act them out; we become what we create. That’s what our lives are. The self is not a “thing,” but a process, a creation, trailing clouds of memory and potential. Religion is like art, with our own lives as the medium. It’s why most of the world’s great art has a religious dimension. It inspires us in a way that atheism, nihilism, existentialism, consumerism, have never managed, other than the odd sparkle.

We shape the world we see; the world shapes us. Religion describes the relationship. Believers see God as the measure of it. But we’re on uncertain ground here, to be entered with trepidation, shoes and hats off. No one can really describe it for anyone else. Beliefs can lead you to the river, but they can’t make you drink. And at the riverbank they look the same. They can all be equally persuasive, and equally fragile. Christians in Montana might believe in Jesus materializing through walls (Luke 24:36) and see him appear to them. Animists in Burma see ghosts doing the same. The Uduk in Sudan experience ghosts reading their minds. Every culture on earth has their equivalents. All these figures are “real” for those concerned. Saying one is real and the others imaginary is chickening out. Saying they’re all imaginary doesn’t help us understand why we see them. If we want to hold on to our own dreams with integrity we should tread lightly on those of others.

The images we see, the voices we hear, are “real” in the way that responses to art and music, beauty and love are real. Also to ugliness and evil — the brain takes no prisoners, and there’s a lot of scary stuff lurking around the sludge at the bottom. It doesn’t discriminate on our behalf. We “choose” our experiences. Religion is about the choices we make. And it operates in the mind’s borders, drawing on our strongest emotions, our wildest fears and hopes. Making sense of them with the discipline of words channels nonsense and fantasy into inspiration and guidance. It allows others to evaluate their worth, and maybe share the experience. Did God for instance really tell Abraham to tie up his son and cut his throat on a windy hilltop (Genesis 22:2–9)? If He spoke like that to us wouldn’t we sooner think we’d gone nuts and go to a psychiatrist than do what He said? If Abraham tried it today wouldn’t we arrest him for a particularly brutal and appalling attempt at child-murder; view his religion as a sick and dangerous cult; lock him up and throw away the key?

He who knows does not speak;

He who speaks does not know.

Lao Tzu (sixth century BC)