“The Universe” as Diet Theism

Today, on “The Blogger Takes Things More Seriously Than They Were Probably Intended”: let’s talk about when people make reference to the universe as some kind of sentient, powerful entity with a will of its own and the ability to make choices.

Since I failed to do this last time, I’ll consider the possibility that these phrases could be said as a joke/with sarcasm; and that possibility could still be true even if the response never includes laughter and the speaker never seems to pause in anticipation of a laugh.  People can say things lightly or without sincerity without the conscious intent to be funny.  However, as bad as I am at understanding human interaction and reading people, these phrases still seem to roll off the tongue in a way that suggests that not all the people who use them are trying to be flippant.  In some cases, I have to assume they’re either very unskilled at satire or they simply haven’t thought through the implications of what they’re saying.

But before we get into it, I should establish what it is exactly that I’m talking about.  I’m talking about casual offhand remarks — or sometimes even an expression of wishes for the future — that allude to “the universe” as a omnipotent being that can choose to punish or provide.  This is distinguished from mere hopes that incidents will happen to fall into place in a convenient way.  This style of speech deliberately characterizes the universe as an intelligent agent of deliberate choices.  Phrases like “as nature intended” are similar, in that they imply Nature is a being that can have intentions, that it can intend things.  This nature/universe entity, apparently, is capable of some level of discernment and judgement.

Setting aside the mystics who clearly mean to incorporate this language into a larger spiritual ideology, the primary users of this style of speech are, as far as I can tell, people who I presume or know to be atheists or agnostics.  If they were definitively and devoutly theistic, one would expect them to replace “the universe” with “God”, or, in case of polytheists, some specific name for the relevant deity.  They do not.  It’s always “the universe”, while attributing to the universe some degree of godlike power and godlike sapience.  Under the characterization of this style of speech, the universe is, for all practical purposes, a kind of deity.

Since plenty of atheists like to joke about theism, it could well be that this is just meant as another comedic jab at theism, except if that were the joke, I’d expect the speaker to outright use a word like “god” rather than a relatively secular word like “the universe”, which has plenty of nontheistic applications.  Granted, you could also point out that it’s just as weird for me to sit over here and be like “Hey!  Your jokes about theism aren’t funny enough.  Do better.”

(Seriously though.  My religion jokes are better than your religion jokes.)

It could also be that there are more people who use “the universe” to seriously refer to a spiritual godlike being than I had previously realized.  If you’re a person whose ideology incorporates something like this, what are your thoughts on people pretending to share the same beliefs insincerely?

And if you don’t believe all those things about the universe, but you use these phrases anyway, well, I just want you to know that you’re confusing me.


11 responses to ““The Universe” as Diet Theism

  • salmelo

    I generally consider myself agnostic and I’ll admit to using phrases such as this. For me at least, however, they’re generally used in times of frustration. “The universe hates me.” “The universe just doesn’t want me to be happy.” Essentially different ways of offloading fault on things that are not myself. I could use the word god instead, it wouldn’t make much difference. Eventually I move on and make an attempt at actually fixing things. (Sometimes that eventually takes a while, but that’s another conversation.)

    In large part I probably use those specific because they’re the words my father used. Why he uses them I couldn’t say for certain, but I know his beliefs are non-christian and I might remember him mentioning a sort of deity-universe-equivalency at some point. I suppose in a way it’s kind of similar to atheists saying “god damnit.” We pick up the parlance that’s used around us, even if it doesn’t necessarily match our internal beliefs.

  • caelesti

    Perhaps some people say this in jest, I mostly hear it from people who have loosely spiritual beliefs, vaguely New Agey (people who specifically label themselves pantheists or panentheists seem rarer to me) they just have a general “the universe is sacred and sorta kinda conscious”. I’m Unitarian, so I hear a lot this sort of thing, though Unitarians are more prone to actually studying theology and coming up with labels/explanations of their beliefs than random “Spiritual But Not Religious”
    people who don’t participate in any sort of community.

  • PurplesShade

    I chuckled a little at the idea of you mocking atheists for not having good enough religion jokes.

    Ah, this is a habit I sometimes have, and I am an atheist. I have two potential reasons for this, I suspect both are true, and probably that there are other reasons I’m not aware of.
    The first is it’s a habit of speech I picked up form my father, who is a pantheist, (a materialist pantheist mind you) he actively thinks that he universe is potentially sentient and speaks accordingly; but he doesn’t believe that necessarily affords us any benefits (although he seems to figure one can at least hope) but he also doesn’t believe that it’s super-natural and also doesn’t believe in an afterlife.
    The second reason is simply that my brain does sometimes default to the intentional mode, and my brain has a second default which is what to direct the idea of intentionality at, in absence of a specific object to direct my emotions toward the universe gets defaulted to. Even though I know logically that there’s no reason I should feel that way, and if I catch myself it’s not as if I’d actively believe the universe is intervening in my life.

    Oh actually there’s a third, I will sometimes intentionally mention the universe so that I can express an emotion out loud because I’m feeling it too strongly to only confine it to my head, and in absence of a specific noun to direct the emotion at, I use the universe (or sometimes I’ll say existence, or life, or probability).
    Example: “Yay, thank you universe!”
    I’d say this if something has gone right, and in this case what I’m sayings is not directly what I’m mean – Instead what I mean is: I’m happy that the probabilities which are inherently tied to the natural laws of our universe have ended up being in my favour. Again in this example thankfulness is just an emotion that I’m experiencing at that moment, but without anything specific to direct my gratitude towards, I thank the universe so as to have a means to express the emotion.

    I hope that makes sense? <.<

    • acetheist

      Interesting the number of people who’ve picked this up from theistic fathers. Granted, that number is just two so far, but that’s something I hadn’t anticipated. I knew there were New Age types for whom the belief was sincere and that there were atheists for whom it wasn’t, but it didn’t occur to me that one group could share family with the other.

      “he actively thinks that he universe is potentially sentient and speaks accordingly; but he doesn’t believe that necessarily affords us any benefits (although he seems to figure one can at least hope) but he also doesn’t believe that it’s super-natural and also doesn’t believe in an afterlife.”

      He thinks the universe is sentient, but he doesn’t consider that supernatural? Hm. Okay.

      The rest of this — having a direction to address emotions or reactions to — sounds a lot like something I used to joke about with the copilot as being one of “the pros of theism”, though the idea was meant tongue-in-cheek.

      • PurplesShade

        Of course, due to cloning the monkey as a variety of confirmation bias, I thought it would be common to pick it up from parents, since it’s my experience. XP

        Yes, he thinks that basically stars/planets/dust clouds of the universe are like our neurons but at the different physical scale. More or less he thinks the universe is one giant sentient organism.
        This comparison to the life we know but a different scale is also probably why he doesn’t think it’s aware of us, because it wouldn’t be any more than we are of our bacterial colonies. *shrugs*
        Now mind you, I can explain to you what he’s told me, but as it’s not my belief it would be hard for me to defend, or present extremely intricate details thereof.

        Our language is very built around the concept of having someone or something to articulate things about, which of course would have includes a God/god or gods in many instances. (Perhaps this is partially because of how many people were theists historically speaking, and of course also how many still are.)
        Definitely jokes can end up reflecting reality more than we expect sometimes. haha XD

  • Calum P Cameron

    I sometimes do this. As a Christian, I think I mostly do it when I wish (for the purposes of either humour or venting) to ascribe responsibility to someone for something that obviously wasn’t anyone’s fault but I don’t want to bring God into it (either because bringing God into it would make things sound unnecessarily serious or because it’s not actually something I wish to accuse God of). For example “It appears the universe is conspiring to make me happy today” or “Apparently, even the universe hates my poetry”.
    The other (rarer) time I do it is when I’m basically using it as a stand-in for “God” while talking to people whom I know will not react very well to mentions of a recognisable deity.

    In both senses, I also sometimes substitute “fate”, “physics”, “existence itself” or some other grand and all-encompassing word or phrase.

    • acetheist

      “The other (rarer) time I do it is when I’m basically using it as a stand-in for ‘God’ while talking to people whom I know will not react very well to mentions of a recognisable deity.”


  • rimonim

    I refer to “the universe” in this way all the time. A few reasons.

    1) I’m a sort of monotheist-panentheist in the kabbalistic tradition. So while I wouldn’t say he universe is God per se, I’d say it’s a manifestation of God that points back to God…so referring to the universe or the cosmos is basically another term for God.

    2) In Judaism, we have dozens, maybe hundreds, of names for God. Each one highlights a certain aspect of the Infinite (which itself is one such name). Using different names helps remind us that any human term is just a tiny arrow pointing at the One. It’s important not to make any one name into an idol, confusing the name for the Reality it labels. I think a lot of people do this when they take a word like God too literally and get too attached to that one word. So for me, using different names, including “the universe,” is a spiritual practice.

    3) The city where I grew up has a hardcore New Age/ex-hippie community. Spent a lot of time in New Agey spaces growing up. So talking about the universe is this way is just normal to me. :)

    As for my thoughts on atheists and agnostics using the term…well. Atheist and agnostic are just names, too. Oftentimes they describe just one part of a person’s worldview, namely, theism as they have defined it. Doesn’t necessarily rule out a rich spirituality.

    • acetheist

      The atheists who’ve replied so far seem not to use the phrases literally/earnestly. If they did, though, I’d have a lot of questions as to what they think marks the difference between their understanding of “the universe” and theism.

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