A “God” I can Believe In

ManyGods“God” is a group of sounds often used in English. Those sounds have very different meanings to different people. But no matter what particular mutually-contradicting religion a person belongs to, when they say “I believe in God”, most people mean little more than exactly what I also believe:

  • a reflective life is valuable
  • attempts to lead a moral life are good
  • awe can be felt by looking at the world
  • it is important to look for peace and love
  • forgiveness, generosity and kindness should be nurtured
  • even when things are bad, we should try to find some good or inner peace
  • the patterns of relatedness in the universe are dazzling
  • we should sacrifice for our family and friends
  • we should not limit our kindness to only our loved ones
  • we should limit our pride and greed from harming others

And there are more things in the list of things I value that other folks package into their word “God”.

But if, by “God”, a person means:

  • a being to whom they can pray so as to affect the health and well being of others
  • a being who rewards those who believe in him and punishes non-believers
  • a being who wrote a book that tells us exactly what is right and wrong
  • a being who makes the believer’s life meaningful, while a non-believer’s life is essentially meaningless.
  • a being who controls the history and individual lives.  And so the believer should relax and just accept things.
  • a being  whose holy books and directions we should not question
  • a being who demands that believers preferentially associate and support only believers.  And demands that believers either avoid, try to convert or battle non-believers.

Well, then, I don’t believe in their “God” (or whatever sound they use to label it) and I will fight that particular belief.  Sure, I can believe in the first list but I have no need to try and tuck it all into one package and call it “God”.

But what if the sound “God” for them is a mix of items from both of those lists? Well, then I will try to fight the bottom list items (and any tools they use to strengthen them) and support the top list items and hope they do the same for me.

The question is, what should nonbelievers do with a believer’s abstraction called “God” or “Allah” or “Ram” or…?  Well, first, it may be useful to unpack the word and see which list items they are wrapping the those sounds. And it should be obvious that we could do the same sort of analysis with other abstract words  like “Freedom”, “Democracy”, “Family”…


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

38 responses to “A “God” I can Believe In

  1. “The question is, what do I do with the sounds “g-o-d” which they are attached to and can’t seem to understand how they are really using the word?”

    My husband likes to ask politely pointed questions about other people’s definition of the term. He studied the Bible for years and knows much more about what it actually says than the average person. Often he will stump them and then they’ll change the topic.

    I’m a peacemaker (sometimes too much so). I tend to wiggle around the topic for as long as possible while paying close attention to what else they say about g-o-d and humanity. If you listen closely I think it’s fairly easy to figure out what people believe over time. There are almost always little slip-ups that separate people who take their holy book literally from cultural Christians/Jews/Muslims or the “spiritual but not religious.”

  2. @ Lydia,
    Listening closely is very important indeed. Something I could always get better at. I rarely pick at a person’s beliefs at all, as long as they don’t publicly hint at stuff in the second list. But if they are verbal about those items, I may become just like your husband too. 🙂

  3. Hi Sabio,
    Everyone has a different understanding of, and definition of the word “God”, and if that definition brings them peace, and not justification for violence, I say, good. Makes for an interesting debate, however, and I’m looking forward to reading more responses.

  4. @ vb holmes:
    Thanx for jumpin’ in. I have two additional points to make this more interesting than just good believers vs. nasty believers:

    (1) Re-enforcing the Bad
    Some folks feel that people who continue to use “God-talk” re-force those whose god is in the second list. Progressive believers feel they can change things from inside the faith, while other wonder if they do more reinforcing of the nasty side of religion than they imagine just so they can feel safe in the moral camp of “god believers”.

    (2) The Complicated Mixes
    Lastly, of course, one of my points was that most people have a mix from both lists.

  5. I have a similar problem with the word “Jesus”.

    When I read the gospel accounts, I see Jesus as a liberal reformer challenging a conservative establishment.

    And then I look at Christianity, and see that it has become the Christian establishment that Jesus was opposing.

  6. @ Neil: That is true. When people say, “I believe in Jesus” or even “I follow Jesus” — they can:
    (1) mean radically different things — some fine to even atheists, some not
    (2) believe a weird mix
    (3) believe benign stuff but still fall into old trappings and re-enforce the undesirable, if not outright dangerous ideas in many Christianities.
    Thanx for dropping in.

  7. I appears to me that when people say “I believe in God,” they are often actually making statements about themselves, and not ones that involve belief in a rationalist sense.

    “I believe in God” usually means “I’m a member of the Goddist tribe, so you should be nice to me, not like those non-Goddists who are fair game for being nasty to.”

    If it is said with fervour, and with demonstrations such as going to church, it may also mean “I’m claiming to be especially ethical, so you should trust me.”

    (As Jonathan Haidt points out, “ethical” here is likely to point partly to a set of contested basic values, such as respect for human secular authority, for which promoting Goddism is a signal.)

    A fervent “I believe” may also mean “I’m trying to work my way up the Goddist status ladder, potentially into a leadership position.”

    None of these have much to do with “believing in God” in either of your two senses—except your final bullet point in the second list!

    So I wonder if you aren’t taking “belief” a bit too seriously here. It might be better to look at what the claim “I believe” does rather than what it supposedly means.

  8. TWF

    That is indeed an intractable problem. It’s one whose nature I think you’ve covered in previous posts in more general discussions about word meanings. They mean exactly what the speaker intended; no more, no less, but that doesn’t help the listener discern them precisely.

    It’s a complex, and frustrating problem, and, as you mention, not limited to religion. Because of that, I don’t think that there is a single solution to the problem. Although, I would suggest letting the “fruits” of that belief be the guide. Evaluate the product of the belief, not so much the claim of belief itself.

    And maybe someday I’ll be able to do that… 😉

  9. Applying the “what it does, not what it means” approach to your original post, I expect your aim here is to separate beneficial aspects of religion from harmful ones, with the hope of helping those who are religious for good reasons to realize that they don’t need God for that. I’m fully supportive of that.

    On the other hand, it may be possible for people in that category to recognize that another part of their motivation for being “religious” is for social signalling, and being successful in relationships with other religious people, which has nothing to do with belief.

    Once that’s clearly understood, one might decide that the costs of religiosity are greater than the social benefits. Or, one might become a more authentic liar—one might abandon all belief internally, but choose to play along and pretend to be an upstanding Christian, for the benefits that brings.

    Dennett says that a large fraction of the Christian clergy fall into that last category. They don’t believe in God at all, but think they are doing good work anyway, and that they have to pretend in order to continue to benefit people.

  10. @ David Chapman,
    Indeed — actually I have sort of written on that before somewhere.
    Most people, when they say “I believe in God” are usually trying to make some sort of social signal instead of delineate their well thought out beliefs.

    Actually, that is exactly what I meant by many of the items on my list. They want you to think they are good, reflective people — and they probably want to view themselves that way too.

    So no, I certainly am not taking “belief” seriously at all. It is, however, a common mistake of atheists.

    Yet to think that it is mere social signaling for many people is a mistake. I have story after story to verify. They use the beliefs to harm others.

    In my Christian-dominated town, there is very little cost to being a causual Christian who confesses occasionally in public and goes to a few Church events. They don’t really believe anyway, and gain all the desire “normalness” to be had.

    Clergy may be paying that price — but those who claim they are intellectually behind their product and willing to defend are far between. Drug reps have similar problems being honest about their products.

    @ TWF,
    To quote the Bible:
    I have come to realise that nothing is better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. (Eccl. 3:12)


  11. I thought on the idea of ‘a God I could believe in’. The only rule was that this god was intelligent, and created our universe on purpose.

    After lots of thinking, I came to the conclusion that the malevolent god is just as doubtful as the beneficent. The ambivalent god leads to the question, why did he bother in the first place?

    I did finally come up with in intelligent prime mover that fits our circumstance: The artist. When we humans create art, it can have both joy and tragedy, excitement and boredom, pain and pleasure. When an artist creates a work of horror, the movie Seven for example, we recoil in horror at the plot that unfolds, but we don’t think the creator of the film is evil. If our universe is merely that, the creation of an omnipotent artist, that is something I could accept as a realistic possibility that reflects the universe that we inhabit.

  12. @Revy,
    Yeah, if a an omnipotent deity made this world for humans — ’twas certainly an evil deity. But if the world was not made for us [which of course it wasn’t] then either there isn’t a god, or it may not be evil, but just not biased toward humans. It may have a very different objective.

    I am glad you thought about the question: I hope you also understood my points.

  13. Niel Rickert, I totally agree. I left church for a while, pretty much for those reasons, but recently felt drawn back. For me to be a Christian is to try and follow Jesus’ example of living God’s way, and on a day to day basis that means with regard to the individuals around me. I may not be able to change the whole established Church, but perhaps I can make a small difference at the local level. As I see it, it’s about individual relationships as much as the wider community.

    Sabio Lantz
    I’m not sure prayer can affect the health and well being of others. Some believe their prayers have helped people to become well. I certainly don’t think it is something we should rely on.
    For me prayer is a cross between dialogue and meditation.

    John’s gospel may be the least factually accurate account of Jesus’ life but I believe it’s spot on when it says ‘God is love’.
    Jesus didn’t say anything about hell or God sending people there if they didn’t do things his way.

    Modern Christian, Jewish and Islamic thinking tends to see their holy books as of human origin, although more or less inspired by God. I understand for Jews it is important to ‘wrestle’ with their Bible and not take things at face value, but look for the deeper meaning.

    As a Christian I believe God values each human being equally and also puts a high value on the rest of her creation.

    I’m not sure what God’s role is, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t micromanage the world or the rest of the universe.

    Most of what “God tells us” is actually people thinking they can speak for God, and such people should always be questioned.

    If we want to grow as human beings it is helpful to listen to what others have to say and learn from them. As a Christian I have learnt a great deal from Buddhists as well as Scientists.

  14. Jessica

    Wondering about your thoughts on this. I think many things we see as dos and don’t ‘re: religion and God seem to me to be rules based on observations of pitfalls or situations that may tend to cause stress or strife. For example, sex before marriage leading to single-motherhood. I wonder what statistics are on negative childhood with single parents verses two-parent homes or how they would even compare. I may seem to be of-topic but your thoughts on God prompted me tho think along those lines: “morality” rules in relation to choices and consequences. If love to see you write about this. Perhaps you have!

  15. @ Karin,
    Thanks for stopping in.
    “Prayer” means many different things to people — as you illustrate. And certainly, there are different sorts of prayer. Meditation is similarly diverse in meaning and use.

    Thanx for sharing your version of Christianity — it sounds inclusive and useful to you even if the metaphors and stories you use aren’t useful to me.

    @ Jessica,
    Certainly some of the behavioral commands in many religions are based on practical felt implications, even if they are wrong.

    The Jewish scriptures tells us to kill children who are not obedient. (Deut. 21:18-21) I’d imagine such a command had beneficial effects on keeping kids in line. There are many other examples of similar bizarre rules. Sex out of marriage may be a useful rule from some aspects, but many Muslims believe that women who do this should be stoned to death (see my post on that).

    I saw a great quote on Twitter yesterday by Alex Gabriel (alluding to Islam): “No religion is inherently a religion of peace or war. Religions are very rarely inherently anything. That’s sort of the problem with them.”

    And likewise on Religion and Morality. I hope that helped illustrate my position and that I understood your question.

  16. Well, language is poor. The word g-o-d means different things to different people. And so does the word “belief” or “religion”. For example, “I believe in god” has an entirely different meaning than “I believe I lost some weight last week” or “you told me x+y-y^2 cos(t)=1, but I’m not sure I believe that”. To take the “religion” case, we must (as we discussed in these blogs before) define the word to include non-god entities, such as an authority or a state. The phrase “these people are so religious” has different meaning in different societies. Well, the bottom line is that language is so poor that we need to boost it with logic, going to extremes in many cases, if we want to properly understand concepts. (Didn’t Plato say something like that when he spoke of the meaning of words? Not sure…)

    And to give an example from the place where I live, Sweden, the concept of g-o-d is virtually unknown to many people. And yet, if you didn’t know, you’d think they’re church goers, It’s a religious society without god.

    Let me also comment on one phrase from your second list:
    “My present life is more meaningful than yours because I believe in him and you don’t.”
    There are places in the world (Texas is one–I lived there for a decade) where the phrase “I know better than you because I believe in god and you don’t” is part of the moral values of many (the majority, I dare say.)

  17. @ Takis
    Good contributions, thanks.
    You said

    language is so poor that we need to boost it with logic, going to extremes in many cases, if we want to properly understand concepts.

    . I am not sure what you meant there, but I add the following as items to be accounted for.

    #1. When people use language, they are rarely seeking ‘truth’ but merely trying to influence another person. So, using “logic” actually often misses the intent of the communication attempts.

    #2. Rather than logic (see #1), to guard against the different uses of words between people, sharing of experiences (more personal communication), can help real understanding. The more abstract a conversation, the more we are tempted to misunderstand the most frequent use of language.

    #3. “Concepts” are something that seem a later development, a later tool. To understand the difference between trying to manipulate vs trying to understand (see #1 and #2) is very difficult. The distinction is critical. IMHO

  18. I’m not sure I used much in the way of metaphors and stories, but no matter. You say a lot about what you don’t believe, but what do you believe? Which metaphors and stories work for you?

  19. @ Karin,
    I don’t make up stories to explain the world in the way you do. Lots of folks have those sorts of cosmology myths, but I don’t feel uncomfortable without them. Uncertainty does not bother me. Meanwhile movies, novels, poems, games and such are a great pleasure for me — I just don’t take them to be fact.

  20. What sorts of cosmology myths are you referring to?

  21. Well, I don’t decide that ONE thing started all of creation and give it a name and powers. Nor that it has son’s, angels or such — not sure how much of that you buy into in your flavor of Christianity. But that is the sort of thing I mean. I don’t use stories about Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna or such to help me make moral sense of the world. That sort of thing.

  22. Rob

    I’m not a Christian, but very humbly respect those who feel this way towards me. As for fighting others with words or other means, I would say why bother , it wont change their minds, after-all we’re in this Whole Enchilada together!

  23. Well, Rob, are you trying to correct my attitude or just tell us yours so as to perhaps influence mine.
    After all, “we’re in the Whole Enchilada together!”

  24. Rob

    I think Sabio means he is in favor of upward causation versus downward, or the belief that we all (Life in General) ascend with progression towards a non existing goal of existing solely for well who knows what, with this line of reasoning, but I think we need both.We are all in this together to figure this “reality out” and we should use all of our imaginations’ , and to do so perhaps Quantum style.

  25. @ Rob,
    Who are you talking to, mate?
    First, I NEVER talk about “Life in General”.
    And I have no idea what “Quantum style” means — and please don’t tell me.

  26. Rob

    Hi, no not at all Sabio, I just like to pull on strings to get them to play with me some times. lol. I don’t wish to affect your “reality” whatsoever, I am from both sides of the equation so don’t have the burden of either ethos, although I have given up on atheism for myself, I was brought up in Atheism and Theism, (long story, short) so have the freedom of not being brainwashed by either camp.. I am what you call a free thinker. So I also have no problem with uncertainty or playing both sides against or for each other, I relish it! I respect your voice as much as any other, please don’t respect mine, as it is such a waste… I am being sincere. end of discussion.

  27. Rob

    Ok no, Quantum for you Sabio. You know too much already. It must hurt, very badly. I am so sorry, please forgive me for tormenting your soul..

  28. So happy for your free thinking, Rob. Be well.

  29. Earnest

    @ Rob I really did not get anything all that useful out of any of your statements. You defeat yourself with vagueness.

    @ Sabio I’m a spackle god fan myself. I think the spackle god is a nice repository for the mysteries of life, and I suspect there are a lot of social christians out there who would agree. Perhaps Rob was trying ineffectively to express a similar feeling but at this rate we may never know.

  30. @ Earnest,
    At least you understand that it is spackle. And I pray it weathers all the storms for you or at least the ones that matter. I sincerely do.

  31. Ok Sabio, picking up on this link you sent me form the Roosters post.

    I think we’re close but there is still a disconnect, because while I love your first list, it sounds like you’re missing a middle list before the extremes you point out in the second list (none of which I endorse… except I wouldn’t rule out that praying for someone can help. Although I also wouldn’t be interested in arguing with you about it, I think there may be something to be said for energy of prayer for others that I’m not prepared to rule out).

    Middle list off the top of my head:

    – Believe that It’s possible that there’s a Higher Power who loves us and created us for a purpose, and therefore be accepting of people who have those beliefs..

    – Understand that evidence suggests that the odds currently lean toward a Higher Reality instead of none, so it would be perfectly acceptable to explore it, and that does not point to one’s fear, weakness, or stupidity.

    – Have humility that maybe the human intellect hasn’t evolved enough yet to understand a HR, but that doesn’t conclusively mean the answer is that no HR is possible, or rule out a metaphysical cause for life.

  32. @ CE:

    The list are traits of this “God” or “Higher Power” or “Universal Matrix”.

    Your first is that it loves us — well, I need practical examples of how, and they are in my lists — heals and gives well being.

    Your second example isn’t about the traits at all — it is simply you telling us why you feel you can be believe.

    Your third example is your constant arrogant claim that if atheists don’t believe, they are not humble. You constantly tell us that people should be humble like you. Ironic, but it has nothing to do with the list of traits.

  33. @ Sabio

    You’re misunderstanding me and you keep misunderstanding me. It may very well be my own fault for not being clear enough, so let me try to be crystal clear here: I DON”T CARE IF YOU BELIEVE IN ANYTHING. Be atheist all you want! It’s perfectly fine with me.: Are we clear on that now?

    Also I NEVER SAID ” if atheists don’t believe, they are not humble” SO stop putting those asinine words in my mouth (or direct me to where I said it). We are not talking about “beliefs” here.

    The only thing I am trying to suggest to you is:

    To have humility of WHAT”S POSSIBLE and accept why some people are not omniscient atheists (and that it’s not less valid, weak, or scared to be open to exploring what is not yet proven). I think you would agree to that, but to be clear:.

    Simple question for you: Is it possible that a HR/P exists? Please just answer with a yes or no and we will be done with this conversation?

  34. @ CE:

    You’re misunderstanding me and you keep misunderstanding me.

    I don’t care if you believe in fairies or a super matrix loving universe. Be woo-woo or Christian all you want. It’s perfectly fine with me. Are we clear now?

    I won’t yell in large bold font, because I think you can get the point.

    And again here you say, “to have humility” — you can’t even hear your self-righteous terms and ad hominem attacks.

    Just because someone does not believe in unicorns, fairies or the possibility of fire-breathing dragons does not make them lacking of humility. Your rhetoric is ridiculous. Try to listen to it. You repeat it over and over in most of your comment. You think pulling the humility-card will win an argument and you are wrong — it is a logical fallacy.

    So, as for your simple question.
    Here is the same for you:
    Is it possible that Grosplikvisir exists? Please just answer with a yes or no and we will be done with this conversation?

    You see dude, with out operational definitions (you know what that means, right), then my question and yours is nonsense. You want to keep stuff sloppy and fuzzy so you can accuse others of not being humble. Silly.

    Remember, I don’t care what you believe. Got it?

  35. @ Sabio

    Sorry, I don’t agree with your core point and you don’t agree with mine. Somehow we are talking past each other on this issue. I bet we’d have some cool conversations over a beer (if you drink beer that is 🙂 but it just ain’t happening here.

  36. @ CE,
    You know, we have no idea if we disagree because you haven’t given us anything by which to identify an HP. And you do not address the straightforward question I ask you concerning it. Instead all you offer is a bunch of fuzziness and call those who don’t agree with you as lacking in humility.
    So since that continues, I agree, we probably won’t make progress here or any furthering of knowledge.
    But I am sure we’d have a fun chat over beer, wine or tea.
    Be well.

  37. @ Sabio I haven’t given you anything because I have nothing to give but my explanation of the odds (and I never claimed to have anything more). I just commented on your last question on the Rooster post thread. That’s all I got man. In my opinion, existence points to a gap (like was the case for space-time relativity), and at the moment I think the gap points to an HR. Call it a god of the gaps if you will, but I’m not proposing a god in there, just the possibility of an HR or HP that should warrant further exploration … and one way to explore it is to dabble in the arts of metaphysics.

  38. @HR,
    Great, so you admit, your HR is impotent and untestable. Yet you feel your are more humble for believe in it.

    I understand when you say, “That’s all I got man.”

    I have far more than “dabbled” in the supernatural (metaphysical) stuff. Sounds like you need to do more than dabble to find your way out of nonsense.

    You want to hang on to the “Christian” label, and tell others that your thinking is more “evolved” and then tell everyone they should be humble like you. But in these conversations you show us what that really means.

    My suggestion: give up the false self-image that you are somehow more flexible and humble because of what you believe. You may have better progressive Christianity than fundamentalists, but you have not dropped the self-righteousness. People are not lacking in humility because they don’t stay open to untestable, indescribable, undetectable fuzzy-energy. Sure, you can keep trying to sell it — I don’t care. Believe what you want, I don’t care. But when you attack others, we will fight back against your belittling rhetoric.

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