The Feel-Good god

People use “God” in many ways. See my post on “God Definitions“.  But a very common core god for most people is this:

God = What I value; What I find Inspiring; What gives me awe.

All of these sentences contain two elements: “I” and positive emotions which are difficult to express.  So simpler translation of this core god is:

God = what makes me feel good.

Here are a few more points about the “Feel-God” god:

  • Some people are willing to let this feel-good god remain private.  Some people want to share their feel-good god (some more aggressively than others).
  • Some people surround the feel-good god with theology, some don’t.
  • Granted, some people are so self-destructive that their “Feel-Good god” seems horrible to us. But the sad thing is, it serves them in some way.  This service gives their brain the similar rewards that other feel-good gods do.
  • Even atheists are sometimes willing to redefine God to keep all the positive cultural notions, to bond to others and to still have a lofty notion for what makes them feel good.
  • Many non-theist Buddhists, find other ways to capture this god within their theology/philosophy.

As an example of the deifying what we value I thought I’d share this video which I found on Ian’s site where he says “Amen Brother“.   This is a very touching video of a young man who has gone through much suffering with an illness and yet survived and has hope.   He tells us  “I have faith in people, I believe in God, and the Internet is my religion.” He also tells us that “Humanity connected is God!”

For this young man, the good things that happened and allowed him to live were a result of the internet which caused connectedness between people who helped him.  Connectedness may not be everyone’s feel-good god. But the educated listeners in that room (and reading this blog) get what he is saying and probably love the internet too. His story is touching to them. They thus allow the sanctification of that feeling with the word “god” in that room at that time — it helps them get a hold on their emotions and feel connected and more secure.

Yet all he is saying is :  “I am thankful for what I have and I want this for others”.  They he sanctifies his feeling with the word “god”.

But imagine any fundamentalist religious person stirring the emotions of people with huge commonalities. Then sanctify their message with “God”.  Does it seem OK to you now?  This magic works on our brain — that is why it persists in atheists and theists alike.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “The Feel-Good god

  1. Ian

    Fundamentally I agree with you. But I think there’s something more significant about it too.

    “God” as a term has particular social and cultural role. It has a particular respect, it is a short hand for profundity and transcendence, it is a totem for what one is guided by, or where one’s deepest loyalties lie.

    So I think when I, or the speaker, talk about something that clearly *isn’t* Yahweh as being “god” (my meta-mind, for example). We are doing it because we want to import some of the cultural *function* of the word. Because we find that useful.

    Where it isn’t helpful is when folks hear that importing and think we’re importing more than we want. I suspect that’s why you’re so suspicious of my use of God. Because God is such an overloaded metaphor that you might think it is unusably ambiguous.

    The speaker I think uses “God” because he is making the contrast to the period of faith in his life. The faith he lost. The internet has function in his life which corresponds to what he once thought God did and was.

    So it isn’t just that God is what makes us feel good. But that God is what we want to elevate to a position of profundity and cultural importance.

    Incidentally, Christians talk a good deal about this too. About making Money, or Sex, or one’s Job into God.

    Its a perhaps silly distinction, but I’m comfortable with the label atheist, because while I find “God” still a useful and meaningful label, I do not in any sense believe in the “theistic God”.

  2. Thanx Ian. Here are my responses:

    (1)” “God” as a term has [particular] social and cultural role[s].”
    ==> I bracketed changes I’d make to show many roles — but after my change, this is almost common sense.

    (2) “It has a particular respect”
    ==> sure, we respect what gives us pleasure and we want others to do the same.

    (3) “it is a short hand for profundity and transcendence”
    ==>Instead, I think it is simply trying to make something as plain as “MY PLEASURES” to be more profound or transcendent than it is. A rhetorical/emotional trick.

    (4) “it is a totem for what one is guided by, ”
    ==> sure, we are guided by our pleasures. Not too profound.

    (5) “We are doing it because we want to import some of the cultural *function* of the word. Because we find that useful.”
    ==> replace your word “cultural” with “manipulative” and I will agree. And “manipulative function” will obviously be useful.

    (6) “Where it isn’t helpful is when folks hear that importing and think we’re importing more than we want.”
    ==> agreed. Or at least I’d say, “It doesn’t work when people don’t buy into our manipulation or disagree with out intentions/pleasure-preferences.”

    (7) “The speaker I think uses “God” because he is making the contrast to the period of faith in his life.”

    (8) “So it isn’t just that God is what makes us feel good. But that God is what we want to elevate to a position of profundity and cultural importance.”
    ==> So hopefully I have made it obvious why I disagree with this. (even if I may be mistaken)

    (9) “Incidentally, Christians talk a good deal about this too. ”
    ==>Oh yes, indeed I know. They point this out when “believers” aren’t using “God” the way they want them to. It is a delicious irony.

    Hope that clarified our differences — if they exist? 😉

  3. BTW Ian, I wonder how secular Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims and others pull of the secular use of their Divine?

    “Wow, the internet is my Allah!”

    “When I see a rainbow over a waterfall, I see the Buddha.”

    “I know Krishna through car racing!”

    All this makes sense to me in my analysis. Does it still work in yours?

  4. Ian

    Well, okay, you can do that if you want. Things that are good are kinds of pleasure. But it feels you’re rather doing this:

    One can use God as a term that ranges from very literal to very metaphoric. At the very metaphoric end it could apply to anything positive (not even pleasurable, one can talk about the boss being God, for example). But when you make things very general metaphors, you throw away most of their distinctive meaning.

    I wouldn’t assume that, because people use “god” in different contexts, they aren’t sensitive to nuances in its meaning.

  5. Ian

    “things that are good” -> “things that are god”

  6. Thanx Ian. Cute video from Johnny Darko — agree with the limit of stripping stuff down.
    But I am not “assuming that, because people use “god” in different contexts, they aren’t sensitive to nuances in its meaning.”

    I assume (agreeing with you):
    (1) it has many meanings — many contradictory
    (2) it is used metaphorically and literally
    (3) people are often very sensitive to its meanings

    Many use the word are as I describe in the post PLUS nuances, metaphor, literalism and much more. But sorting out the ubiquitous MY-DESIRES rhetoric is an important skill. And when that is stripped away, what is left is far less shiny.

  7. Earnest

    It looks like in the Internet we have found our Deus Ex Machina!

  8. Ian

    @sabio – yes, then I agree. It just seemed as if you were trying to take the uses I was raising and smash them all into “pleasure” (i.e. profundity, transcendence, motivation, respect). They aren’t the same, and the differences are significant. But sure you can Donny Darko them onto the “pleasure-pain” scale if you like.

  9. @ Ian
    Again, if someone is trying to manipulate you with lofty, profound, make-belief stuff, just to do their bidding, then exposing that is the smart thing to do. It ain’t dumbing it down to Donny Darko — your analogy was false. IMHO

  10. “God = What I value; What I find Inspiring; What gives me awe.”
    -that might work. i would add a few wrinkles to that but i will take the long road to do so.

    “God = what makes me feel good.”

    i don’t agree with that. too simplistic. this kid in the video presented didn’t feel very good. instead he followed what he found to be inspiring, he led life (at least what he thought remained of his) by following awe. awe doesn’t always feel good. i think you taught me that. awe at a cancer cell or looking at the resistance of the AIDS virus is a different sort of awe than say, a sunset, or looking at the autumn leaves from your kayak.

    he found meaning and it helped him through a bad time in his life. he found a community and a discipline and the faith would be a by-product of these factors.

    or me: i would put the wrinkle in that God sometimes overturns what i value. but i’m left inspired. i am awed by “God” sometimes in the ‘wow! the world is so cool and so big and i’m alive in it!” way and the “whoa! the world is so cold and so big and i’m insignificant in it!” sort of way too. it doesn’t always feel good, it can cause an existential crisis, but there are seeds of redemption and hope within the crisis.

  11. It strikes me your description of people with a feel-good notion of god is a good one.

    I wonder if people with a feel-good notion of god are more likely to worship in groups? In a way, they might resemble sports fans. That is, assuming half the fun of watching a ballgame is watching it with enthusiastic others who are rooting for the same team as you. So, if your god is what makes you feel good, then group worship might enhance your feelings. It might be nice to see a study on that topic. Know of any?

  12. @ Paul,
    I agree 100% on your point. Similarly, my daughter likes to play make-believe with her friends but stops when an adult walks in. But if she is playing anything else, when an adult walks in, she does not stop.

  13. Just read all the comments and I think what you’re trying to do is exactly what Ian stated with Donnie Darko. God=feel good = group worship/corporate sporting events = exactly like my daughter is weak. It’s all the pleasure-pain presented by the teachers in Donnie Darko. The difference is that Donnie Darko is one of the most Christocentric movies out there. An outcast who has supernatural abilities who is set up to be a super-hero but dies to save other’s lives? hello. how biblical can you get?

    The difference is that most atheists I know want to paint themselves as Donnie over and against the simplistic (and false) faith of the teacher. It’s not that easy, esp. given that Donnie is a Christ-figure, and I would argue one of the best in recent cinema (that and Eastwood in Gran Torino). I don’t see you doing that, exactly; but the pleasure-pain model is what you’re on, at least IMHO.

    So that leaves me two questions: How are you not? What am I missing here?

  14. @ Zero,
    Yeah, I don’t want to spend too much time on this.
    It is simple (and several readers get it). Many people make a god speak for what floats their boat. Period.

    Another false dichotomy could be: The-use-of-“God”-is-always-stupid vs. “God”-is-full-of-mystery-and-deep-nuance

    I don’t want to get off on an analogy, yet alone a movie. My point is simple:
    “People often make a god a tool to propagate their preferences — it is important to see through this.”

  15. CRL

    This is a practical way to define god if one is trying to avoid a conflict and to promote religious tolerance. As a result, it’s a definition I often adopt when surrounded by believers and not in the mood for a debate (or not confident in my ability or the abilities of those around me to keep a debate from turning into a full blown argument.)

    That said, God does not come into existence because we want him to and disappear when we no longer need him. While you have every right to believe whatever floats your boat, there is only one truth. Real people matter more than abstract facts, so we should perhaps focus more on making a better world than changing beliefs, so at least in dialog with believers, it makes sense for atheists to adopt this stance.

  16. @ CRL
    Good points. Thanx.

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