One day, late in my career as a biology teacher, we had finished our lesson for the day on organic evolution, and there were a few minutes left in the hour. A student asked me if I believed in god. I replied that the question was fair and well received, but that the question was asked at the wrong time and place as this was a science class that dealt with secular subjects only, in a secular institution, supported by a secular state and secular nation. I also made the point that science addresses itself only to our questions about natural phenomena, and has nothing whatever to say about theological, extra-natural, or supernatural subjects.
If she were to ask me off campus if I believed in a god I would first have to ask, “Which one?” because the word “god” could be understood only in a generic context. People have created literally thousands of gods, and therefore the idea of “god” could mean disparate things to many people. In the approximately 150,000 year history of modern human beings, people have always created their own gods from their own experience, and to suit their own purpose whether for their perceived needs, or to control others.
I would have asked her, “Specifically, which god are you asking about? If she had said, “The Christian God”, I would have replied that I was still at something of a loss for an answer because I did not know what she meant by “god.” I would have explained that I had asked maybe a thousand people, both professional and lay people, to define what they meant by “god,” and that I had received an equal number of definitions. One young mother had told me that she defined “god” as, “the space between the molecules.”
I had read what scores and scores of theologians and philosophers had to say about what, or who god was, or is, and they all had different opinions, and they all thought they were right, and that the others were wrong. Even the early Catholic Church was rent asunder because different factions defined their god in different terms. Now, we can only wonder how many different concepts of “god” there are among 2500 denominations of Protestants.
Some Christian theologians had been accused and convicted of heresy because their ideas about “god” were different from some others. I knew that this had been going on for more than twenty centuries, and there was still no resolution to the differences of opinion, even from those who allegedly knew the most about the subject. The likelihood that I understood “god” in the same context as my student was so remote that if she were asking if I believed in the same idea of god as she did, the answer would statistically have to be, “Probably not.” This begs the question: “After more than two millennia, are we any closer to having a clearer and more universal understanding of who or what “god” is?
If she was asking if I believed in an anthropomorphic, paternalistic, patriarchal, personal, creator god (a kind of cosmic designer) who chronically meddled in the lives of people, (a kind of cosmic cop); or a kind of god who meted out rewards and punishments, condemning some people to eternal damnation in a fiery hell for disobedience or unbelief (a kind of cosmic judge) I would have to say, “Surely, you jest.”
If she were asking if I believed in a god who blessed some people with remarkable talents while denying them to others, or played favorites by designating some people as his “Chosen People,” or made countless egregious errors while creating millions of babies born with horrifying genetic or congenital defects, I would have said, “Not on your life.”
If she were asking if I believed in a god who played a role in the generation of natural phenomena (earthquakes, volcanism, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes) without warning people, or who played dice with the universe; or otherwise “watches over us”, then all this is nothing more than worship of an idealized form of ourselves. Such a world view is not only elementary and primitive, it is intellectually unsophisticated and indefensible in light of a more modern understanding of natural phenomena. I would have to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me–please don’t insult my intelligence!”
If the most authoritative god believers couldn’t agree about what or who “god” was/is, what different believers believed really depended on who they had been listening to; even then there was a lot of disagreement. Christians, Jews and Muslims all believe that there is only one God, but they have profound differences in what they believe is true about their God. The differences are so great that they have been killing each other over their different beliefs for centuries; and it is still going on. Christians even kill other Christians over their differences. (See Ireland and Yugoslavia.) The same is true for Muslims (see Sunni’s and Shia) even though all of them preach the “Golden Rule,” forgiveness, charity, tolerance and “love one another.” It seems as though, in spite of all of the rhetoric, the message has been lost, or the message has made little impression on the believers, or that their omniscient and omnipotent God has been either unwilling, incapable or indifferent about doing anything about it.
It seems as though there is an enormous amount of confusion about a subject that should be universally simple, direct and consistent, especially among believers. Such is not the case, and resolution does not appear to be forthcoming.
Some of my Christian friends have suggested that I, like they, should love, honor, obey and worship their Hebrew god who, according to the most learned theologians is: unknowable, indescribable, inscrutable, ineffable, and completely incomprehensible. If we cannot find consensus among theologians as to what, or who, “God” is, then we cannot escape the idea that those who engage in “God talk” really don’t know what they are talking about. We are left hopelessly adrift without a rudder, in a stormy sea of semantic obfuscation and blinding confusion, falling headlong into a philosophical black hole. Are these people then, even worthy of our attention? Should we even give consideration to their unverifiable claims and groundless assertions?
I suggested that if we were created in the image of an omniscient “god,” and that people have always created their gods in their own image, then such a god must be a lot like us. That being so, then worshiping such a deity would be little more than another form of anthropomorphic idolatry which would be narcissism at its worst. This is not only patently absurd, it is intellectually abhorrent.
So, back to my student’s original question–do I believe in God? Almost everyone believes in a god or gods. It depends on how “God” is defined and whose definition is accepted. If we examine and understand our own history, and the history of gods, it is not difficult at all to understand why there is such incredible diversity in our concepts of “God.” It just depends on how we define our own idea of “God,” or if we accept someone else’s concept of “God.”
If we accept someone else’s concept of “God” on faith, then we are allowing them to do our thinking for us. If people are inadequately educated and/or incapable of thinking for themselves and defining their own god, in their own terms, to their own purposes, then I suppose that is the best they can do. Unthinking people (the ignorant masses) have always believed what thinking people, (the king and the priests) have told them what they should believe, and how they should behave. It is not difficult to imagine why so many educated people have rejected that kind of intellectual and emotional manipulation.
If we accept the unsupported and unverifiable claims and assertions of others in the secular world, we will be branded as, and known as, gullible, credulous fools, and deservedly so. If we accept the unsupported claims and unverifiable assertions as truth from those who claim divine sanction, are we any different from those in a secular context? Is there anyone who thinks we have two brains and a double set of consciousness, one for secular concerns and one for religious concerns? Can we afford to be critical and analytical thinkers on just a part-time basis and abandon our higher thought processes to satisfy our appetite for warm, comfort-able emotional trips into wishful thinking, and an escape from reality?
Will we educate our children with the highest level of our modern, intellectual knowledge base, or indoctrinate them with ancient, and archaic biases, prejudices and religio-political agendas derived from a tribal mind set to solve the problems they will face in the 21st century?
Do I believe in a god? Certainly not in the context of any of the monotheistic religions which are derived from a pre-modern knowledge base that can best be described as somewhere between Paleolithic conjecture and Bronze Age speculation.
I did believe in a god as a naive child because I was indoctrinated with that idea before I could think critically and evaluate the arguments and the evidence for and against the existence of a god. Like everyone else, I was the product of my environment. Subsequently, however, in the light of a modern, scientific knowledge base, gods of any kind, whether one or many, cannot stand up to critical examination. Gods, like all religions, are grounded in, and derived from, a profound misunderstanding and misinter-pretation of natural phenomena. Gods cannot be reconciled with the realities of the known laws of the universe.
Can I prove that a god or gods do not exist? Of course not. One can never prove a negative, nor is one ever compelled to try to do so. The burden of proof is always on the claimant, and thus far, no one has ever provided a single scintilla of compelling evidence to support the assertion that a god or gods exist.
Nearly everyone understands this. Believing in a god then, is a matter of choice–it is a personal option that is exercised according to one’s perceived needs and reflects the level of one’s understanding of the world and the cosmos in which one lives. If your definition of a god does not agree with mine, that is all right with me. I say you’re entitled to your own definition of your god. If my definition does not agree with yours, is that all right with you?
I define god as, “The nature of Nature.” This works for me. If it doesn’t work for you I will NOT say that you are evil, or immoral, or amoral, or doomed to spend eternity being seared in flames. I will not label you as blasphemous, nor call you a heretic.
If you disagree with my definition of “God,” you have just two choices: you can define your god in your own way, in your own terms, to serve your own purpose, or you can let someone else do your thinking for you.