The God Problem

“When we call the corn Ceres and the wine Bacchus we use a common figure of speech;
but do you imagine that anyone is so insane as to believe that the thing he feeds upon is a god?” Cicero

The Great God Con. The first and greatest con-trick that believers in religions pull is to introduce references to ‘God’ in everything they say. Their first question will often be “Do you believe in God?” This of course immediately presumes (a) that the term ‘god’ has a definite meaning to you and (b) that you know what the term means to them and often (c) that the meaning of the term is understood by all and sundry and does not need to be explained. Some believers become so immersed within this concept that they become unable to think about anything without invoking it. Such people I term god-befogged. This con-trick, surprisingly, seems to have taken in a good many philosophers. For instance in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich I can find no paragraph in which the idea that ‘god’ is a meaningless concept has ever entered the head of any of the numerous contributors. The article on atheism and agnosticism is particularly weak, and there is no entry for secular. It still surprises me how many humanists, and even professed atheists, use the capitalised name 'God' repeatedly in their writings. Fortunately this now happens less than it once did. When this name is used by a humanist what does it mean? Usually I think it means 'the god of the christians', and indicates that the writer was educated at schools with a marked christian ethos, or believes the audience being addressed has a predominantly christian background. Whether the christian god is the same as the muslim god (Allah), or the judaic god (Yahweh), or one of the hindu pantheon, and so on, as some ecumenicalists would have us believe, is debatable. Personally I think these religions ultimately incompatible. The fact is that there are at least four common meanings for ‘God’ which are mutually incompatible and all of which have detailed variations. We examine these below.

The Creator God. A creator of the universe, who may or may not still be able to intervene in its workings, either by personal intervention or through evolutionary processes. The evidence for the existence of such a creator is usually based on the argument from design, the classical statement of which is that of William Paley (1743 - 1805). Paley likened the universe to a watch, with many ordered parts working in harmony to further some purpose. The argument as he constructed it is thus an argument from analogy. He wrote before the theory of evolution by natural selection was discovered by Darwin and Wallace (1858). This theory, developed further over the subsequent 150 years, adequately explains the appearance of the complexities of life and ecological systems. More modern arguments on these lines include those that use the anthropic principle, claiming that the natural constants of the universe must have been ‘fine-tuned’ to allow humans to evolve. Others using such terms as creation science, or intelligent design, or irreducible complexity simply deny evolution and try to undermine the theory by emphasising differences of opinion between evolutionists, even though many of these have long been settled. Many critics of religion assume that when a 'god' is mentioned it is a creator that is being invoked, but other interpretations may make more sense. The idea of a creator solves nothing anyway: there is still the problem of who created the creator. Also, a creator has to be blamed for everything: the bad and the ugly and the funny as well as the good and the beautiful and the dull.

God as Moral Authority. The existence of a god, religious believers suggest, is a necessary condition for the existence of morality. Morality they say consists of a set of commands; it does not describe the way that the world is, but rather prescribes the way that the world ought to be; it tells us what to do. Commands, however, cannot exist without there being a commander, and there must therefore be some being that issued the commands that constitute morality. On the other hand secularists maintain that moral behaviour is partly determined by utilitarianism or consequentialism; that is calculating the benefits and consequences to us individually, collectively and to the world at large, and weighing up which decision is the most favourable, if that can be determined. Where a definite result cannot be achieved by this consideration then the choice may be a matter of personal life-style or conscience. What secularists consider to be moral may thus differ markedly from the answers offered by religions. A sneaky way religions try to gain allegiance is to claim that you are a sinful, miserable, filthy wretch and that by confessing your sins (to a priest, or some imaginary being) and by believing uncritically in the doctrines of the faith, your sins will be forgiven and your life changed. (It also miraculously helps if you put some money in the collection box!) They claim that when your sins are forgiven you will feel tremendous relief. But who is it that has given you this burden of sin and put this pain in your heart in the first place? For humanists there is nothing sinful in drinking, dancing, gambling, sexual activities, or the many other normal activities of life on which the churches frown, so long as they are done in moderation and with understanding of any dangers involved. Some religions even claim (though this is quite illegal, as well as being morally and scientifically wrong) that through faith you will be healed of terrible diseases (diabetes, asthma, piles, typhoid and jaundice were listed in a recent leaflet I received!) Very little thought is needed to realise that such claims are nonsense. The way to find a cure for such medical problems is to see a scientifically trained doctor. Relying on faith as a cure could be extremely dangerous.

God as Ideal Goodness. Some sense can often be made of religious, particularly christian, writing, at least in part, by interpreting their god as a personification of the ideal of goodness. This substitution is also useful in such oaths that even humanists need from time to time, such as 'Thank g for that!' or 'Oh, for g sake!'. One of the difficulties with this interpretation is that many christians refuse to accept it, since it logically implies that it is also possible to conceive of a personification of badness, the Devil, whose existence they deny (although other sects believe in his reality). The christian emphasis, especially in the education of children, on denying evil and seeing the world in rose-tinted "All things bright and beautiful" mode is not only irritating to a secular person who wishes to see reality in balanced terms, but is surely positively dangerous. The ideals of goodness are exemplified in the lives of prophets, saints, martyrs and suchlike. Perhaps because of the view that the christian god is only good, christians have unofficially developed a whole pantheon of 'dark gods'. Among these for example is 'Mammon' (from the aramaic word for wealth) which is a mediaeval invention, personifying the supposed corruptive influence of riches. Wealth obviously gives its possessor more opportunities to succumb to undesirable temptations, but in the hands of people with constructive views perhaps need not have corrupting effects. After all, poverty is also often named as a cause and justification of criminal behaviour. I have heard rational people arguing heatedly in terms of 'Mammon', as if it were a real force for evil and not merely a form of metaphor. If a god is taken as representing an ideal of goodness it cannot also be a creator-god, without requiring baroque theological contortions. (This is known as the problem of theodicy.) It could perhaps be put at the other end of the universe instead: as the aim of evolution; destination rather than origin.

Gods as Personification of Natural Forces. There can surely be little objection to the idea of a god as a personification of natural forces or human ideals for the purposes of the very human activities of tale-telling or dramatisation. For example Neptune, the fish-tailed, harpoon-wielding, stormy-tempered Roman god of the oceans, or Thor, the god of thunder and lightning in Norse mythology producing thunder with his hammer or lightning with his spear is still attractive poetic imagery. Such gods were the first comic-book super-heroes or villains (they are often ambivalent). In fact modern cartoonists have resurrected them for just this purpose in graphic novels. These personifications are now most often seen in cartoons, where winged angels and horned devils, appearing in thought bubbles, represent the struggles of the protagonist between conflicting temptations. One might also think of Jiminy Cricket who acts as Pinocchio's conscience. Such personifications are in a similar class to such creations as Santa Claus (the personification of festive fun), or perhaps even Sherlock Holmes (the cerebral detective). They also find a home in science fiction, such as Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (where the extra-terrestrials take devilish form and occur in folk memory because of a previous unsuccessful visit) or fantasy tales, such as the television series of adventures of Hercules and of Xena the warrior princess. There was some controversy about censorship of an episode of Xena featuring a distorted version of Hindu mythology (though there seems to have been little reaction to similarly weird views of British history, such as the portrayal of Boadicea/Boudicca). The main trouble with personifications is that, being a form of analogy or metaphor, they can be taken too literally, stretched too far.

God as Abstract Principle. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This is the opening of the Gospel According to St John in the King James translation. 'Word' here is a translation of the Greek term 'Logos' which also has a wider meaning of abstract principle. This exemplifies another way that some idea of 'gods' can be made compatible with a secular point of view, as abstractions, that is by denying their human-like or psychological attributes and making them abstract quasi-mathematical concepts. An abstract personification of the universe, or of nature or the laws of nature, or of perfection or infinity. Einstein seems to have had views of this type. In this way a god can become identified with the universe or nature or natural forces. Otherwise it becomes something purely metaphysical such as logical or ethical necessity, as in the writings of Spinoza or Kant. The philosophical discussion of the nature of existence is termed ontology. So an argument intended to show that a god must necessarily exist is termed ontological. The so-called argument from necessity maintains that because we can conceive of an ideal perfect being, that being must exist. But really this is no argument at all, but merely an appeal to mysticism. The ontological argument is usually attributed to Anselm (1033 - 1109). A related type of argument is to identify a god with the idea of the infinite or transcendental or unlimited. Such a god is not bound in time, matter, or space like the universe is, but transcends all things. It is then claimed that all finite things come from the infinite. The infinite is incomparable and beyond our finite understanding: any description of such a god is inadequate because the unlimited cannot be placed within limits. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the problems associated with the concept of infinity in mathematics were put on a sound logical basis by such thinkers as Peano, Weierstrass, Dedekind, Cantor, and Godel. It was shown that the idea of an infinite class or an infinite number cannot be proven to exist, it has to be introduced through an axiom or postulate, such as the axiom of choice. The mystique of infinity of course appeals to those of a mathematical turn of mind, and has been expounded very attractively for example by Douglas Hofstadter in his book Godel, Escher, Bach an Eternal Golden Braid, but this does not justify its worship as a god. If there is any type of 'god' that I might feel attracted to, it is the abstract 'Logos'. But generally my own view is that all forms of belief in 'real' gods outside fiction, particularly those having direct control over human affairs, are childish mediaeval hangovers and should have no part in modern thinking.

Personal Gods. Many religious people believe in a kind of parental persona or spirit with whom it is possible, in some mysterious way, to have a relationship of love and turn to for guidance and who will listen to prayers and protect you in difficult circumstances. This is in many ways similar to the imaginary friend that many children invent, or a cuddly toy like a teddy bear. Many rationalists would probably be prepared to accept an abstract, depersonalised notion of a god, as say the universe, or the ideal of goodness, or even as the creative spark or first cause that set off the big bang. The trouble is that religious believers then start to assign other human-like attributes to these concepts. In their minds they become beings through whom the universe has come into existence, and who exercise control over it and the lives of its inhabitants, and which are worthy of praise, worship, submission and so on and on. The problems mostly centre around the idea that a god is an actual person, not a personification. Not a human person, but a superhuman being with supernatural powers, a superbeing. A creator with plans and purposes, not just a first cause. Some religions such as Buddhism or Jainism it seems do not actually involve any belief in superbeings, at least in some of their sects, so we do not need to discuss them here. However rationalism rejects all forms of superstitious belief as well as belief in gods. Such as prayer, life after death, spiritualism, resurrection, reincarnation, karma and magic.

This essay is based on an article I wrote for the Leicester Secular Society Newsletter, issue 1, 2000, and on a page that I contributed to the Leicester Secular Society website in 2004.