Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Flawed Question

Do you believe in God? For a long time this common question has provoked my impatience and frustration. There is an unwarranted assumption behind it—that we know what we’re talking about when we say the word “God,” and that it’s therefore a simple matter to say whether or not we believe in it.

If I ask, “What do you mean when you say ‘God’?” I usually get an expression of surprise in response. I’ve challenged the unspoken assumption. When the questioner then attempts to give me a definition, it is usually different in some ways, subtle or obvious, from responses I’ve received before. Even members of the same Christian denomination will give me answers that are strikingly different. This word is interpreted in so many different ways that the question of whether I believe in what the word means becomes practically nonsensical. If those who assume they know what it means don’t even agree on the meaning, how should I be expected to answer?

Speaking philosophically, I would argue that the word has so many meanings because it refers to a transcendent reality—and thus it indicates that which is greater than what we can perceive or even think. It is a metaphor by necessity, because it points to “something” that cannot be directly expressed, and therefore it is capable of multiple interpretations, even contradictory ones. This, however, does not solve our problem, it only provides a hint as to its origins.

First of all, let us attempt to gather together the most common conceptions into one general definition. By common conceptions I mean those we usually encounter in daily life and discourse, private or public. Philosophical ideas come later and reflect both an attempt to understand actual principles and a quest for the origins of our ideas. So in common parlance, I would say that “God” is an all-powerful being that created the universe.

In our culture, moreover, this being is usually referred to as a male person. This personal gender aspect would seem to be of secondary importance, but in practice it has been tied up inextricably with the general concept of the supreme, all-powerful creator. It cannot be ignored in any discussion concerning common conceptions of God.

So it is in this context that the question “Do you believe in God?” actually occurs, and it is in this context that the controversy between organized religion and atheism takes place. We now get bogged down in questions of proof regarding the existence of God, with a typical example being the arguments around Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

I’m not really going to analyze this aspect in any great detail. This may surprise you. The fact is that the concept of the all-powerful creator has already been demolished many times by rational argument, centuries ago. The writings of David Hume alone should be enough to shatter most of the assumptions, although Hume ended up accepting a Deist concept—the common escape for 18th century philosophers from the charge of atheism. Subsequent authors have elaborated on Hume’s beginnings. The assaults of Voltaire, Paine, and Nietzsche were primarily on the cultural front, but in the realm of the common conception one can’t really separate the cultural assumptions from the rational ones.

Before I ever read these philosophers, I sensed a basic conflict within the idea of an all-powerful deity. The creator must be different from the creation, therefore separate, therefore limited in some way. For that which is separate from something exists relatively to something, and anything that is relative is limited, conditioned. If God is separate from the creation, does he therefore occupy space? If he does, then space is a condition of a higher category than God. If he does not, than he is separate from creation in a way that cannot be conceived. We might say “a different dimension,” but this is just magical language with no actual reference point for us. On a more abstract level, even to say that “God exists” implies that existence is our ultimate principle, with God subsumed under it. But God cannot be anything but the one, primary principle, otherwise he is limited. And so forth. In other words, the concept of a being that is separate from us automatically implies the relative nature of beings, which contradicts the language of absolutes assigned to the supreme being.

On a more concrete level—that of personalization and gender—I would ask if God has sexual organs. If not, why do we refer to God as male? If so, to what end would God have such organs? Furthermore, does God exist as a physical body at all? If so, does this body perform physical functions as all bodies do, and how could that be in the case of an all-powerful being, since it implies limitation and mortality? Or if not, why again do we refer to God as male, or indeed in personal terms at all? A theologian’s answers to these kinds of questions would inevitably admit metaphor, but this is precisely where theology parts ways with common belief, and it is common belief that we are concerned with here.

My point is that honest, disciplined, and searching rational inquiry will dissolve the common conceptions of God, and has dissolved it already. The debate, however, involves atheists in assumptions that confine us to a kind of endless loop where nothing is resolved. One of the primary assumptions, it seems to me, is that rational proofs against the common conceptions of God should lead to the end of belief in God. But of course, this has not happened. When confronted with this, atheists may argue that ignorance and superstition are implacable, persistent, deep-rooted forces that resist change.

But I must here confess my skepticism. Most people have been cured of belief in witches and evil spirits. Science has convinced the majority of people that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, even though we don’t have personal experience of this fact beyond the data and reasons presented to us. To attribute the belief in God (and, in a wider sense, religious ideas in general) just to ignorance and superstition, is a colossal error of imagination. I am convinced that there is a meaning behind belief in God, and religion in general, which has both a basis in reality, and a connection to fundamental human need. Of that, I will write in the next part of this series.

Atheism is involved in another error here, though. It is strangely similar to the destructive beliefs of fundamentalist religion. And that is that we can hope someday for most people to come to agreement on these questions, and all share the same beliefs. If only everyone would recognize that there is no God, then we’d be okay. But it will never happen, and it is foolish to expect it to happen, or to try to make it happen. We need to accept that people will always differ on this, even if we think that those who belief differently are wrong. Belief is not what threatens us—the forces that threaten our world are deeper than that, and are reflected in our actions towards each other. Belief systems mold themselves to our patterns of action, and not vice-versa. They adapt to our lives when we learn new ways of action in our relationship to others.

--This is the first in a series of articles about the debate between religion and reason.


whig said...

God is consciousness that pervades the universe and that which is beyond the universe. Those who receive this consciousness are not only part of God but capable of exercising some of this consciousness, and when those who do this are male the presumption of a male God is seen. There are as many matriarchal views, but socially they have been suppressed in our culture. The error is supposing that our culture is universal, that our metaphors are to be taken literally.

sydnificus said...

@ Dashiell:
The writings of David Hume are enough to shatter all theist assumptions. No adequate answer has ever been given to his challenge.

@ whig:
I don't understand your attribution of consciousness to God. Why must God be conscious? And if that consciousness pervades the universe, how can anyone receive or not receive it? They would presumably be pervaded by it, wouldn't they? Replace "God" with "Goddess" to reach the same conclusion.

Chris Dashiell said...

As you can tell, I think it is evident that the idea of a personal God, or in fact of any supreme "being" literally understood, cannot be true.
My interest, then, is in the significance of metaphor, why the metaphor has persisted, and what it means to the human race, for weal and woe.