A lot of religions, monotheism in particular, ask their followers to submit to God through certain practices, like prayer and abstinence (e.g. Lent or Ramadan). It is also common for religious people to talk to God, asking for forgiveness or guidance at certain milestones in their life. This has always struck me as weird: surely God has already decided who to forgive and your requests won’t change the course of Its plan; your devotion should be evident through the state of your mind, that God could read, and so the practices are redundant. It becomes stranger still when God requests that we implement Its judicial system, by stoning homosexuals or casting out people of other religions; hasn’t God already got a judicial system in place?
I was watching a BBC drama called Orphan Black, and in it there is a strange religious zealot who becomes obsessed with the idea of adopting an unrepentant, murderous woman into his family. As he held her and emphatically asked God to forgive her for her wrongdoing, there was just the hint of desperation in his words. Perhaps I was projecting this, or perhaps he is a good actor, but either way I got the impression that the zealous demands that God forgive her were not actually for God at all. There was just a sense that it was a personal ritual; he needed permission to forgive her, for what she had done was so relentlessly incongruous with his religion (and general moral sensibilities). It was a practice. By asking God to forgive her, he permitted himself to forgive her and take her into his family.
It started to dawn on me that religious practice doesn’t necessarily have to assume a God. What you need is the ritual. The ritual doesn’t convey any truth, but it offers a catharsis. Religion and its practices can be used as a tool for mourning and grief, celebration and joy or even progress and forgiveness. When God forgives what is really happening is a human is forgiving through the lense of a practice or metaphor. God is a metaphor for what is: God is; I am. It is not necessary to posit a conscious, personal, powerful God with real punishments and rewards. God is a spiritual metaphor for an entirely natural phenomenon: our lense of the world.
Exactly what that lense is is only implied. I would argue that the lense is one of labels and categories, something humans are wont to do (even if we try to transcend it). We cannot forgive a person until they have been put into the category of the forgiven, so when we say “God, please forgive them” the speaker is actually asking themself for permission to forgive. It is a rite, but God is only the system of categorisation, which we actually do ourselves, after we will ourselves to do it.
Prayer, similarly, may be the opportunity for us to organise in our minds the things we really do want. The practices look like a delegation to God to take responsibility for our lives. And, in fact, if a religious practice is carried out in the assumption that God is real, then religious practices very much are a surrender of our autonomy to a God. But seen as a personal ritual, in which one is imploring themselves to change their perspective or acquire wisdom, then the poetic ritual begins to make some sense. Religion appears to make more sense without a God than with.