Tag Archives: God

“Do you believe in God?”: 4 meta-questions

Do you believe in God?” is a question we have all heard.  Most people take this to be a straightforward question, but readers know that I take every opportunity to discuss the unquestioned assumptions hiding behind common sense.

Here are four big activities hiding behind “Do you believe in God?”:

  1. You” (“You” are not who you think you are.)
  2. Believe” (Beliefs are not what you think they are.)
  3. God” (There are different sorts of contrary gods)
  4. ?  (The question is not asking for facts, but offering a signaling opportunity.)

Understanding these four meta-questions, can help unravel the illusion spun by the apparently simple question of “Do you believe in God?”

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How a god can both exist and not exist?

Does God Exist

Does “God” exist”?  Well, it depends how you define your word “God”.

The classic theist way is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving invisible being that intervenes in the world and after death.

Well, we have absolutely no evidence of an invisible being intervening in the world.  The problem of Theodicy (see Wiki) has made this clear for millennium.

Now, if a person’s definition of “God” means: “that invisible being who causes me to have peace and happiness (or awe or dread or whatever emotion the believer weighs strongly)”, and offers no way to test such a thing, then we could say, ‘Sure, if you want to call that feeling “God”, and since I am willing to assume you indeed are having that feeling, then, using your specialized vocabulary, I am OK saying “your God exists”.  But I am not saying that the theist god exists, of course.

So sure, a believer may believe a god like Krishna or Yahweh or Jesus or Allah moves their hearts and fills their life with meaning and I would be happy enough for them.  Yeah, I don’t think any of those people/gods exist in reality but in those person’s minds, that is the word they use to label their experiences and feelings.  So sure, as long as they don’t push their god on me, on my politics, on my children, on my science, they can have their god.  I am glad they have a word for what makes them happy.
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Notes:

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Roosters, Jesus & Imagination

Sabio, Petey and the gals

Sabio, Petey and the gals

The winter of 2012 was so cold that our rooster’s waddles got frostbitten. His bright, beautiful red wattles became dusky with large, shrinking patches of grey and black.  “Petey” no longer pranced and crowed so we kept him in our basement to nurture him back to health — measured by the return of a healthy “cock-a-doodle-doo!” But even then we’d only took Petey out during the day to be with his girls and we brought him in during the night when temperatures dropped. With all this tender love — carrying in and out of the cold, private feedings and keeping warm — Petey got used to us — he grew to love us more and was thankful. Petey longer threatened us when we were in his chicken pen (Roosters can be very territorial).

We protected Petey this winter too. He is a much tamer, loyal, friendly rooster. Well, until my wife wore her red tennis shoes out into the pen the other day and our sweet Petey attacked my wife’s feet.

Sabio_Daughter_dogsWe had imagined a relationship with Petey that did not exist. Well, it seemed a harmless imagined relationship and it was a cute story. And it is not just Petey with whom we assume human quality relationships. Here you see my daughter and I with our two dogs who love us unconditionally — yeah, right!

We imagine all sorts of human qualities in our animals until something shows us that it is not true. Likewise, many Theists have a “relationship” with their god until something in their life reveals that the relationship they imagined is inaccurate. They then either change their theology (re-imagine a new relationship) or stop playing the imaginary game. The choice depends on how important it is for them to continue imagining the relationship.

Question to Readers:  Tell us of an imagined relationship that you presently have — one that serves you well.

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Reification: Packaging Abstractions

Modular_God_mediumTo the right is the illustration I used in “Your Modular God“(2010) to show how people use the word “God” as a neat, singular package to contain diverse functional modules which themselves contain concepts, feelings, preferences, behaviors and more.

Though theists contend that their “God” is an invisible being (be that God called Yahweh, Allah,  Krishna or other) my model above shows that what is really happening is that their “God” is a way for theists to hold together certain valued modules easily so they can comfort themselves, bond with like-minded people and/or manipulate others into their values.

Theists use “God” as a reification of their hopes, fears, desires and loves.  “God” is an abstraction that they concretized. Concretizing an abstraction is called “reification” – it is a great word. “Reification” comes from the Latin stem of “res” meaning “a thing”  plus “fication” meaning “making or causing”: Causing something to become a thing. In fact, reification is a common logical manipulative fallacy. But even if  a god exists, it is certain that “God” is a tool for most, if not all believers to capture their desires.

Of course the believer does not do this intentionally.  Objectifying the abstract term “God” is done unconsciously by a believer in order to talk quickly and easily about their hopes, fears, desires and loves.  And as I explained in my post, “Secular Gods“, even though atheists may reject religious reifications of “God”, they themselves also create reifications — we all do it.

We largely don’t understand reification in general — our minds blind us to its mechanisms. Atheists also incarnate their desires, hopes, fears and loves — by creating secular gods.

Below I have created a diagram to try to illustrate my point.  On the right you see a particular Christian’s reification of “God” while on the left you see an atheist doing it with the word “Patriotism” (as an example).  The atheist, like the theist, could then go around with his/her Patriot myth telling folks what a “real” Patriot is and what “real” Patriots should do.  He may never see behind his own term.  He may never understand all the cool feelings he gets when he thinks about “Patriotism”, because it is real to him (reified) — perhaps as real as an theist’s god.

If you don’t like my example, pick another, add or subtract your own modules — either way, I hope you get my point.

Packaging_Abstractions

Some rightly attack religion by pointing out its contradictions, but I feel pointing out the process of reification gives us deeper insights and make the accusation less personal because it is something we all do.

For atheists, nothing should be sacred.  Nothing should be immune from doubt, questioning or demands for evidence.

Question to readers: Can you give another example of reification?

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An Early Atheist

Early_AtheismSo, can you spot the atheist?

I made this image after seeing this cartoon by David Hayward. You see, unlike one possible message in David’s drawing, I don’t think that people make up different stories about “God” because they are blindfolded as they grope some underlying divine reality. Instead, I think as they view the complicate world, they are just too tempted into quick, simple answers, or they are easily self-deceived or they are just uncomfortable with the unknown. Oh yeah, I left one possibility out: in the worst case scenarios, they are just manipulative bastards!

Sorry, watching a bit too much of Tim Minchin’s dark humor today — let’s blame him.

Anyway, this have been is my sad attempt at artistry, humor and a tad bit of philosophy. Maybe I should just leave those things to David and Tim.  What do you think?

 

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Groping God

by David Hayward: click to see his post

by David Hayward: click to see his post

David Hayward, an excellent progressive Christian artist, put up this cartoon yesterday in a post called “Theologians and the God Guessers”.  James McGrath, also a progressive Christian and amazing religion professor, loved the message of Hayward’s cartoon and put it up on his blog in a post called, “Are We All Insane“.

I wish I could draw and put up a refutation-cartoon. My imagined cartoon would illustrate something history has shown us time and again:  That the blindfolded people are not feeling (seeing or hearing) a GOD, but instead they are feeling the real world and creating gods from their blindness:

  • When they see a volcano, they imagine an “angry god”.
  • When they hear lightening, they think “dangerous god”.
  • When they see an illness,  they think “cursing spirit or demon”.
  • When they lose a war, they “punishing god”.
  • When they see someone saved in an accident where many are killed, they think “Angels!”.

You get the point. People create gods to make up for lack of understanding, to gather followers, to comfort themselves and to manipulate others.

History is replete with religious professionals calling for unity of religion.  These ecumenical efforts have been seen to fail century after century not only in Christianity but also in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and more.

These pleas for combining sects is often made by weaker, smaller or threatened sects. As in most things religious (and political …) the rhetoric is lofty and hides very different objectives.  Is progressive Christianity small, weak and threatened — of course it is.

I think progressive Christians are having a fantastically good impact on the religious world. On the other hand, in the process they often reinforce a lot of nonsense too. All religions aren’t trying to describe the same thing. Gods aren’t the underlying reality that we are all trying to feel.

McGrath and Hayward both discuss humility on their posts. McGrath implies that it is arrogant to assume that there is no god. But isn’t it ironic that most of the theist gods supposedly created from humility actually became war gods, political tools, and ways to manipulate with threat of damnation.

Is that humility? Is that blinders off?  No! I will take reality anytime, thank you. And I will continue to call out efforts to create sanctimonious manipulative images to satisfy the gaps of our blindness.

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Secular Gods: Abstractions

“God” is an abstraction.  Well, theists don’t think so, of course, but I do. Theists use the word “God” to cluster together feelings of identity, purpose, belongingness, hope, safety and more.  “God” is a package. “God” is a tool to speak fast to others about their agreed package of preferences or to manipulate others into new preferences. When speakers basically agree on their use of “God”, the conversation is very effective — for the better or the worse.

When a person wants to escape that abstract God-package, one technique is to change the god — change the theology, alter the revelation, revamp the hermeneutics, call for return-to-the-source and more.  These are the moves of reformers, people who like the “God” tool and want to keep it. But another technique, the atheist move, is to see through the illusion of the “God” abstraction, “look behind the curtain” and expose the manipulation.

Using abstractions to speed up conversation is a valuable language tool. Though atheists may see behind the “God” abstraction, they often don’t fully see behind the phenomena of “abstraction” itself.  Many Atheists, acting just like theists, continue to use the same manipulation tool that theists used to create their “God”.  Atheists, buying into the illusions of abstractions, then create their own “gods” — their secular gods.

Some of these secular gods include abstractions like “Nature”, “the World”, “Justice”, “Religion”, “Patriotism”, “Equality”, “Freedom”,  “Love”, “Reason”, “Me”. Depending on the Atheist, any one of these or more become their “god(s)”.

Abstractions are needed for many of the games we play. Games are best played when we take the rules seriously and forget their arbitrary nature.  However, the harmful aspect of games is best kept in check when we keep in mind that it is arbitrary.  Many of the complexities of our lives involve this tension: simultaneously holding in mind the seriousness and arbitrariness of our games, of our abstractions, of our gods.

triangle_end_tiny

See my other posts on: The Limits of Abstractions

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Snoring through Theology

Theology_Peanuts

I have studied lots of theologies: Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu. I have dabble in others including Islam, Shinto and Taoist. And over the years I have come to see theology as stories; stories to help a believer accomplish something like: reinforce moral systems, secure tribal bonds, offer comfort for loss and suffering, explain away troubling uncertainty and more. More nefariously, theology can also used by religious professionals to secure their status and money-making ability. See my diagram to the right which illustrates all the modules that “God” fulfills for people (see the related post).

Modular_God_medium

So when I listen to religious folks theologizing, I simultaneously search to understand how their systems translate into methods to secure these essential human goals. I don’t believe their stories, but I think their narratives (even if wrong or delusional) can serve concrete, practical functions for them.

But we can talk about all these common shared human desires without using parochial theological chatter. Theology only adds an unnecessary layer of abstraction. In my previous post, I called this a “theology knot”. Pic to the left.

Theology_KnotSo when I question people about their theology, I am looking for these basic human functions or obvious inconsistencies or both. But I am often not as patient as I’d like to be.   For after too much god-talk, I inevitably tire.

I actually find theology aesthetically unappealing — mainly because I think it is boring hogwash.  It is not that I mind fiction, but this stuff is usual ridiculous.  I try to remind myself that it somehow serves important functions for the person I am listening to but sometimes the person I am discussing theology with mistakenly feels I am actually deeply interested in the details.  They forget that I have absolutely no belief in spooks, spirits, demons, saints or gods.   It is at times like those, when I have burned out my god-talk neurons, that if the conversation gets carried away, all I hear is “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah ….”.

In my next post, I will put up the question, “Why is Theology so Hard?”.

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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”…

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Two Gods: Experiential vs. Doctrinal

I truly believe that many people have a personal experience of God. I did. I am talking about a direct, unfiltered experience of the Divine. But not everyone has an direct experience of God. I have heard some ex-Christians explain that their main reason for leaving Christianity is because they did not have the direct personal experiences of God that they expected.  They said they felt empty compared to the wonderful experiences attested to by many of their fellow believers. They felt disappointed and then disillusioned. Similarly, many Atheists have never experienced God — they have been atheists forever: “natural atheists”.  To them, “experiencing God” is pure nonsense.

But experiencing God is not nonsense.  God is felt by many people of almost all faiths.  This fact is difficult for many Christians to explain.  Christians differ widely on how they explain people from other religions who claim to have direct experiences with God. Some Christians may dismiss the Divine experience of those outside their faith by saying things like:

  • “Satan deceives them.”
  • “Their experience is self-deception.”
  • “They are only partially experiencing God.”

Each fundamentalist religion is claiming this about each other.  Most believers feel only their group truly experiences God.  But such exclusivism seems to come only after doctrinal instruction.  Of course we can debate what this “God” is that they experience, but that is not the point of this post. Instead, I am emphasizing two ways of knowing God: through direct experience and through teachings (doctrinal).

Believers experience of God comes in two flavors: inner and outer; experiential and doctrinal.  People know God in two ways — with two different epistemologies.  Each religion has outer doctrinal teachings to help believers interpret and explain their subjective, inner experiences.  Their faith then teaches them how to package their inner experiences. Believers are taught doctrine through sermons, readings, group meetings and more. Some doctrinal dogmas tells believers to censor, suppress or ignore their experiences.  A good believer must force fit their inner God into the orthodox interpretations approved by their adopted faith.

Thus believers have two gods: a personal god and a doctrinal god. As believers “grow in their faith”, these two become one and the same god. It is difficult for a long-time believer to remember when they were different.  A mature believer barely remembers that there was any tension.  A deeply-committed believer truly feels that their experiences match their doctrines.  Thus believers of different faiths slowly grow apart and are unable share their inner common feelings because they have been distorted by doctrine.

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