Belief in God                                    Back to Home

People say they don't believe in God. But I suspect most of them wish that everyone else did.

OK, so I don't believe there is an old, white-bearded, Caucasian man sitting on a throne on a cloud in the heavens, watching the world, listening to our prayers, and granting our wishes so long as we pray hard enough and follow the rules of our religion. That infantile conception of God is so absurd that some atheists like to assume it is still in use as an illustration of why one should not believe. I know of no currently active religion whose serious philosophers promote such a simplistic and fantastical concept. Monotheistic religions agree that God has no corporeal presence and is beyond physical description. Some, but not all, agree that God does not interfere directly in the affairs of humankind. Anthropomorphic structures like "God commands that I ..." or "God wants me to ..." or "God helped me to ..." are shorthand for more subtle concepts such as "The right thing to do is ..." or "Somehow I found the strength to make it through a difficult time..." The Bible that forms the original core of the three major, monotheistic faiths is written in language that served the ancients well, language they could understand. They may even have believed the literal meaning of anthropomorphic phrases like "the hand of God." But reinterpretation in the language and metaphor of more modern times has been a continuous process that began thousands of years ago. Yes, thousands.

If you are looking for a way to debunk scripture, go ahead and claim that it is an inaccurate attempt to explain history, physics and biology. But it is not. If you want to derive present-day value from religious texts, then you must delve deeper, refer to slightly more recent, derivative works, and interpret the words in a more metaphorical context. If you are of at least average intelligence, this task is not beyond you, but only if you want to accomplish it. 

Why would one want to seek value in religions that are based on ancient literature? As I have said before, knowledge of science is relatively modern but humans have pondered their own behavior, thought processes, attitudes, emotions, desires, needs, and responses for thousands of years. Although recent scientific work attempts to reduce these things to hard facts, often with significant success, the "soft sciences" have not been invalidated. We understood "fight or flight" long before we learned how the adrenal medulla works. Even the ancients understood the power of love, the dangers of greed, and the fine points of effective social discourse, in much the same way that we understand them today. Just as physicists study the evolution of their field in order to understand better the latest discoveries, social scientists and ordinary lay people can and some actually do achieve better understanding of human interactions by studying early works. There is value there and it is more than academic.

The extra value of the ancients' insights is often encapsulated in religion. Religion uses an understanding of humanity to prescribe ways to live, things to do and to avoid, what is good and what is evil. Each religion seems to emphasize a different set of values - for example, good and bad or shame and honor - and the resulting sets of strictures vary. Take your pick. But to reject them all is to turn one's back on a vast body of wisdom. 

So when asked if I believe in God, I respond "Yes, I believe in God, but possibly not the God you are thinking of when you ask that question." My God is incorporeal, ever present, immaterial, un-knowable but always available and never far away, permeating all of existence but not subject to location or material definition. Some speak of a "cosmic force" and that may be a good, modern description, albeit still simplified. Others speak of an "embodiment of all that is right and good" but that seems to devolve into circular reasoning. I will leave it to the philosophers to expand the definition and many have done so. It is enough for me to accept that there really are Right and Wrong, at least in most cases, and that many religions provide useful frameworks within which to distinguish them. I'm not always Right, I don't always do Right, but I do try not to do Wrong.

I respect most religions. I abhor the awful things that have been done in the name of some religions and I try whenever possible to blame those atrocities on individuals rather than on the faiths they pretend to represent. I particularly admire religions that admit past mistakes and rectify them as much as possible. They have all made some. I admire religions that disclaim perfection and sole ownership of the truth. I am deeply troubled by any religion or its practitioner that damns everyone outside the fold. I am a pluralist through and through. 

So what about my religion? Here are some thoughts on Judaism. 

More later maybe...