Friday, June 15, 2012

God: What are we talking about?

When you say God do you mean a phenomenon or an honorific? The difference has profound implications but can go unnoticed. It’s a question for both non-theists and theists; which one you don’t believe in is as interesting a question as which one you do.

In the Book of Exodus Yahweh commands the Jewish people “You shall have no other Gods but me”.  Yahweh isn’t trying to say that there is or there aren’t other Gods. The use of God in this instance is as a title of the highest esteem, an honorific. In that meaning there are obviously other Gods – the Egyptians have some as do the Persians and so on. It’s akin to Yahweh saying his people shall have no other lover but them. That doesn’t mean other possible lovers don’t exist. Yahweh is simply saying that they alone are who the Hebrews should worship as God.

By my reckoning when theists say they believe in God they are usually referring to the phenomenon of a God. The theist is describing reality, that is a series of facts, such as the world was created by a personality not just a process, it will one day be judged by that creator and so on. The notion that the personality in question is God is automatic because God is their concept that fits those facts. The theist is not generally imagining that anyone could agree with their description of reality but not call the creator and judge in question God. Instead they assume any disagreement they might have with non-theists will be about those defining facts.

When a non-theist says that they don’t believe in God they are usually using the phenomenological definition too. Hence non-theism might mean that there is no absolute creator or sustaining personality (or personalities) for the universe. Or Non-theism might mean that nothing is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. In what ever way the non-theist defines the independent reality they call God, they are saying such a reality is a fiction.

What most non-theists (at least in the west) don’t mean is that no-one should be called God. They are not trying to make a political statement like an anarchist does when they say they don’t believe in government. Most non-theists are not objecting to the honorific of God being used for the sort of thing that they don’t believe exists. To them the question is moot precisely because of such a beings non-existence. They are making a statement about reality rather than their own fidelity.

This is my observation; that most discussions about God are not using the honorific definition. This raises fascinating questions. I’d enjoy any response from non-theists or atheists; Do you have clear phenomenological criteria for what you mean by God? Are they rigid? At what point would whatever model of reality you believe in need to change before you would either begin or cease to use the word God in describing it?

Let’s imagine Raoul believes in an omniscient (all-knowing) God. If Raoul meets his God and he is told by them, “Of course I’m not all knowing. I can’t know the future because of free will,” is Raoul obliged to say that the person they are talking to is not God? Is omniscience a requirement of Raoul’s God or just a description? If the latter, why is Raoul’s God actually Raoul’s God then?

Alternatively let’s say a non-theist physicist discovers a sentience to the whole universe. One day she looks through a super microscope and the particles (in a wave in a string or whatever is down there) form the word hello. The next day the same word is written in the clouds of a distant cloud nebula. Is the physicist obliged to worship as God what they have found? Or is it possible to retain a non-theistic attitude to what meets the diagnostic criteria of God, a single consciousness spanning all space and time?

OHM, a God or not?
This is not all hypothetical either. We live in a time of all sorts of ideas in physics some of them sounding like a personality to the universe. We also live in a time when theology includes notions of a “weak” or powerless God, a god who can’t even oppose cause and effect. For that matter the idea of a God in principle, a prime mover who is now absent from the world, is part of the history of modern science. It’s almost an assumption of Newtonian physics. There are so many God-like ideas floating around some of which atheists believe in.

I sometimes wonder how we could replace the word God in our conversations with something like “the Flux”. It would require us to actually define the word a bit better, as no-one would think they already know what we mean. What if we defined it as something outside ourselves that defies objective investigation and has a positive impact on our life. We might find that a multitude of differences between non-theists and theists break down. We might find separate camps of combined theists and non-theists for the Flux or against it. We will also have disagreements on the appropriateness of reverence for the Flux. Should we submit to it or seek to control it or ignore it? Can we negotiate with it? Should we recognise any other Fluxes other than it?

All I am suggesting here is clearing up a language difficulty that no longer reflects the state of our thinking. It seems to me that it is quite possible for someone at an atheist conference to agree with the metaphysics of some theistic theologians. That is they could agree with all the statements each other make about reality, they just disagree about the use of the honorific God to describe the same thing. It’s possible to imagine a person who believes that the world is inherently indifferent and morally neutral, but who worships a broken cruciform love as a hope. The theist bestows the honorific of God on some aspect of a reality any atheist could accept. They are really a sort of theist/non-theist making a mess of these distinctions.

It is also certainly possible to imagine that the universe was created and is under some entities absolute intelligent control. You could call this a strong metaphysical theism. It is separately possible to conclude that such a force is not particularly “good” and to say on that basis they don’t deserve the honorific of God. This would mean you would have no God (using the honorific) even though you thought one existed! This would be a different type of theist/non-theist. Could such a person share a stage with someone who is a phenomenological non-theist, who straight out doesn’t believe in the existence of intelligent super beings? If not, why not? When we switch between using God as description of reality and as an honorific without noticing it, it is harder to answer these questions with any care.

Buddhism is often questioned as to whether it is atheistic or not. The original Buddha did not deny the existence of gods but said that they were not necessary for our enlightenment. This is to be non-theistic in the sense of God as an honorific but not necessarily in the sense of describing your metaphysics. The Buddha most likely believed in Gods but didn’t have one. I’m fond of that approach because it appeals to my existentialist ideals; no one can really judge you like yourself. No one else can truly give you forgiveness either. It also appeals to me for its agnostic metaphysics. I can never know for certain that God doesn’t exist but it’s not the point anyway.

However I am also often to be found sometimes sitting under the exact opposite tree. I really don’t believe in the sort of thing I would define as a God existing. I don’t believe in an uncreated omnipresent personality with a controlling moral interest in this universe. The world’s data just makes so much less sense to me with such a pilot at the helm. In that regard I am a phenomenological non-theist not just an agnostic. However I also worship and submit to something outside of myself. It is not by my criteria God but it is my god. Some days I call it the good or love or it’s just “that thing that knows that I enjoy loving and being good so I don’t have to fight it”. You know - that thing – my higher power. I can’t always find it but I know when I’m knee deep in it or miles from it. I have a god therefore in the honorific sense but not a belief in any Gods existence.

Death by Neil Gaiman, not real but a god.

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