A God For Our Times (II)

After I wrote my recent essay which I entitled “A God for Our Times” Bruno made the following comment:

You articulate clearly your “future god”.
But what purpose does he serve?
It seems that you still describe an adult/child relationship.
He is still a “god of the gaps”. We don’t need a god to live the life we aspire to in terms of love and kindness. It is a far greater achievement to live that life without the imprimatur of god.
As we reason away the many gods, why stop at one? Surely zero is the logical number.
Life takes on greater meaning, not less, when we abandon the hope of the supernatural.

This was quite a challenging comment. Consequently I felt I would not do it justice just by writing another comment. I e-mailed Bruno and told him I would try to devote an essay to a more considered response. This is the purpose of this week’s blog.

To begin with, let me state that in my previous essay I don’t believe that I proposed that God, at least in the traditional sense, exists. What I was trying to show was that our concept of God has evolved as the human race has evolved. I traced the evolution of the Abrahamic religions from their polytheist beginnings through to monotheism. I showed how over the centuries a God who was angry, vengeful and destructive became more benign and morphed into a God of love. That transition, despite many exceptions, has improved the lot of Mankind. The God I finished up describing, a “God for Our Times”, was my projection of the further evolution of the God concept.

Some of the recent literature taking up the cudgels in support of atheism, for example Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, Christopher Hitchen’s “God is not Great”, largely base their attacks on religion by denigrating the ancient concept of God. This is easy to do. This is a straw man (God?) quite easy to dismiss. But there are some very different concepts of God which might be a lot easier to defend. And we will explore this later.

But why a God in the first place? Virtually every civilisation in recorded history was underpinned by religious beliefs. Religion seems to meet some innate human needs. The three most important needs seem to me to be:

1. Putting a sense of meaning and purpose into our lives. (Meeting our spiritual needs.)
We need to believe that somehow we make a difference and that our lives are not pointless. For many striving to meet the moral requirements of our particular God seems to help in that regard.
2. Confronting the overwhelming forces of Nature. (Our prehistoric ancestors and indeed ourselves, bewail our inability to counter the forces of nature – storms, floods, cyclones, droughts etc. Most probably this was one of the original driving forces for religion – to help Mankind feel it could have some influence on these catastrophic events.)
Humans in the face of the might of Nature seek ways to appease Nature. Robert Wright tells of the people of the Haida, a people indigenous to the north-west coast of North America. It is said that when caught in a storm whilst out at sea they would try to appease the gods of Nature by pouring a cup of fresh water into the sea or putting deer tallow on the end of a paddle. As he points out the myth is reinforced by the fact that those who return safely will extol the virtues of their efforts to appease the gods. We of course never hear from those who tried the procedure or indeed another method of appeasement but perished!
3. Providing hope for a future of some sort after death. (Countering the existential angst.)
This is a potent human driver. The pyramids attest to that fact! I related in my previous essay how the Abrahamic God made a gradual transition from being concerned about the salvation of a nation (Israel) to the salvation of an individual.

Of course some religions didn’t need gods. Taoism and Buddhism were both very influential despite the fact that they did not promote a particular deity. But these religions were often practised by people who retained some belief in the traditional gods of their particular history.

Communist states have also survived for reasonable periods without any support for organised religion. But even in these states religions continued to thrive underground. One might even argue that for many, communism itself became a pseudo-religion.

So God or gods have been instrumental in meeting some basic human needs. In the beginning, before the evolution of large scale cities most people lived in tribal groups of perhaps no more than forty or fifty people. The intense social pressures of such small, tight-knit communities would have made it extremely difficult for individuals to stray from the accepted, conventional wisdom of their tribe. Such pressures, not generally as intense, still exist in today’s societies. Most believers adopt their particular religion and their particular god because of the need to belong and not from a reasoned assessment of available belief systems. Our social and emotional needs will often trump our rationality.

Even the dour Scottish philosopher, David Hume understood this. In his “A Treatise of Human Nature” he wrote, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” The 17th Century French polymath Blaise Pascal had similar thoughts. Brian Rosner, from the Centre for Public Christianity recently wrote that Pascal saw no place for reason in defending faith in God. He stated, “According to Pascal, Christian faith answers our deepest yearnings in the midst of the messiness of life.” No doubt adherents of other faiths would make the same claim about their particular belief system.

In modern times evolutionary psychologists concede that evolution seems to have fashioned Mankind to have religious beliefs and that it must therefore confer some evolutionary advantage. (See for example Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God”.)

So my first response to Bruno would be God exists because he meets some innate, irrational needs of Mankind. The evolutionary psychologists would submit whilst he might have had a purpose once in binding tribes together and reaching consensus on a moral or behavioural code he has little purpose as such now, but is a contrivance to make us feel better! I would suspect that Bruno would largely agree with this.

But is this the only possible answer? Of course not! A question, I believe worth exploring, is, “What might be the true nature of God?”(assuming that God might exist.)

Traditional religions have sought to portray God as some superhuman being, with a mind, passions and motives remarkably like our own who exists above and beyond the Universe. When our ancestors were driven to meet their spiritual needs by inventing religions it would have been difficult for them to perceive a deity other than that. Their notion of God was of an all-powerful tribal chieftain or warlord. God came to be someone with many human characteristics but who was endowed with omniscience, omnipotence and finally, following the evolutionary path I outlined in my previous essay, love and benevolence. As I recommended in my previous essay, we should abandon all the anthropomorphic qualities of God except Mind or consciousness.

Well what are the alternatives? To begin with we might consider the concept of the German-American theologian Paul Tillich. He described his concept of God as “The Ground of Being”. This is a very abstract concept, far removed from the God who walked with Adam in the evenings in the Garden of Eden.

Other philosophers have postulated that the world is an illusion. A frequently used analogy is that the material universe is a dream. It would then presuppose that there is a “dreamer” and if that was the case The Dreamer would in my estimation be God.

Quantum physicists have on occasion surmised that the Universe is somehow like a thought. If that is the case then the Thinker would fit my notion of God.

Some of these options were embedded in Taoist, Buddhist and Vedic traditions.

These are all plausible alternatives in my view.

And Bruno if any of these options were true, and from my probably biased beliefs they come closest to define what the idea of God might be, presuming He/She/It exists, I refute that this implies an adult/child relationship.

More than likely it suggests something more like the “All is One” position I have previously extolled.

Let me assure you though, any God that made sense to me would not be affronted by having his mythical prophet become the subject of cartoons and He would definitely frown on the notion of his adherents being so insecure as to murder their fellow human beings for making a film that portrayed Him in a different light to that which they chose to believe! All these difficulties arise from having an anthropomorphic God with a human like ego and as a result of which his believers seem to believe would suffer from the all-too-human traits of taking offense or being insulted.

7 Replies to “A God For Our Times (II)”

  1. Thanks Ted,

    Yes I do agree that God serves a purpose. Faith rituals and belief give a great deal of support and hope to many, and I always feel mean spirited when I oppose this view.

    I believe that God, should he/she/it, exist is unknowable. By definition, the God I imagine is so great as to be beyond my imagination. In that light, I think we have common ground.

    In concluding this is a “parent/child” relationship, I concede that my language is clumsy. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t therefore assume a relationship of equals. I would expect to be treated for who and what I am.

    Where we come unstuck, I think, is your view (shared with the good doctor Phil) that we form part a whole; be that whole a consciousness, a dream or a dance.

    Again, I would say that I love the idea of being part of a whole, and have no basis for dispute or to refute. I would however, respectfully suggest, that this notion springs from our primal (spiritual) need to find meaning in the world and to address our existential angst.

    That said (and being a little fearful of a public flogging) I would close with the following:
    Human language is imprecise and fraught with misinterpretation (disclaimer).
    It’s early in the morning for me, and I’m much better in the PM with a glass of vino.
    I agree most wholeheartedly with your closing sentiments that howsoever god is, he doesn’t need the chaos and hatred we’ve seen on our streets in recents days.

    Thanks for taking to time to respond so fully to my musings.

  2. Nick Cave’s song “into my arms” begins with the line “I don’t believe in an interventionist god”. To me this is the critical question. It seems evident we live in a reality we are unlikely to fully comprehend, so defining god as the explanation of the unknowable seems tautological. But is there evidence of a personal god who responds to prayer or to individual choice? Do our personal actions have meaning that is altered in some manner either in life or after death, via some divine filtering? I fail to see any evidence for this. The personal, or interventionist god concept seems to be an abstract convenience serving the socially minded (to inspire good works) and the sociopath (to justify harm) equally.

  3. Michael, how good to hear from you again. And no I haven’t given up on trying to have a coffee with you!

    But a great comment.

    As you suggest an interventionist God is very problematic. In the face of all the petitioners who should such a God single out for His divine attentions?

    I was always bemused by one of the pop psychologists that postulated that they were able through the power of their minds to approach intersections and the lights would invariably turn green! If the city were full of such folk they would be running into each other as traffic lights changed to allow their passage!

    The history of God is filled with accounts of those who sought God’s intervetion in their favour when their enemies did the same. When God did not provide the desired outcome then the outcome was rationalised away by believing that somehow the petitioners had not satisfied the requirements of their particular God.

    In modern times we have learnt about zero sum games. In such circumstances there are winners and losers. When the religious lose they blame their lack of faith; when they win they assert the supremacy of their God!

    It’s all a bit depressing really!

  4. I think a 4th reason for a god is that humans need a backstop for right and wrong. The god of the new testament and the bible stories STILL provide such foundation for the western world’s justice system; for society’s moral system; politics; and decisions to go to war and accept casualties. I agree with the concept of a god evolving – like Richard Dawkins concept of memes. However I would differentiate between evolution, which is an unconscious process, and the conscious process of interpretating ambigious religious texts to suit the times or to defend an idea.

    In regards to the recent demonstrations, Christopher Hitchens once pointed out a disparity whereby non Muslim people need to be fearful of offending Muslims, however Muslims do need to fear offending non Muslims.

    1. Good to hear from you Matt.

      There is no doubt that our concept of God has evolved over the last couple of thousand years. And contrary to your statement as our concept of God has evolved so has our interpretation of the scriptures. As Anais Ninn very perceptively stated, “We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are.” It is inevitable that as our understanding of the world changes we will see things differently.

  5. I must restate my last paragraph due to my typo of missing one word that changes the whole intent (and I don’t want to misstate the great Hitch):

    Non Muslim people need to fear offending Muslims, however Muslims do NOT need to fear offending non Muslims.

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