Tuesday, October 25, 2011

G is for God

First some brief preliminaries concerning atheists and agnostics: Agnosticism is about belief. An agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God. To him or her it is still an “open” question. Atheism is a way of acting. Atheists act as if there is no God. They don’t pray and they don’t attend religious services. Hence an agnostic atheist would be person who does not claim to know whether God (or gods) exist but acts as if It (or They) do not.

A Big Magical Friend. That’s what God is. Doesn’t matter if God is male or female, black or white, Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile, Moslem or Infidel, Many or One. What matters is we’d all love to have A Big Magical Friend (BMF).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a Big Magical Friend you could turn to in times of need: Your father has an inoperable cancer. Your best friend needs a liver transplant now. The damned Yankees are going to win again! A meteor the size of New Jersey is on a collision course with the earth.

Your BMF could make any of these things better with just a snap of its finger. If only it were so! Unfortunately we have no such Friend. I wish we did. We sure could use One.

The undeniable truth is this: The Universe is utterly indifferent to us, to our suffering, to our wishes, and to our concerns. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Life on Earth could be wiped out by a collision with an asteroid.

It’s sad—and very painful—to give up the illusion of the BMF but intellectual honesty demands it and genuine maturity isn’t possible until we give it up.

We are alone on this planet to do with it what we will. Someday (hopefully many millions of years from now) no matter what we do, our Earth be burned to a cinder by the Sun along with all that we have wrought upon it. In the meantime, some of us may escape to another planet and plant our human seed there. Probably the rich will buy tickets for themselves to New Earth while the other 99.9% stay behind and fry. (A lottery would be much fairer don’t you think. The winners could sell their tickets if they want to.)


Theists like to confront atheists with remarks like this: “So you don’t believe there’s anything greater than yourself?” If you answer Yes, you stand revealed as some sort of egomaniac. You seem to be saying: “Yes, I believe I am the greatest thing in the universe.” If you answer “No” then you will be asked to disclose what this greater thing is. Since, as far as we know, Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the at the top of the evolutionary ladder in this neighborhood, there’s no serious competition. You might answer modestly and truthfully as follows: “I believe there are many human beings far superior to myself so I cannot be the greatest thing in the universe.” The “greater then yourself” question has no answer that will satisfy believers other than God, but that doesn’t mean it’s either a good question or a meaningful one.

What’s it like living without a belief in God? This is a much better question and it has some interesting answers. For starters, you know that when bad things happen to you, or to those you care deeply about, deserving has nothing to do with it. Bad things happen all the time. Mothers back up their minivans and kill their own child playing in the driveway. People are trapped by fires in tall buildings and are forced to jump to avoid an even worse fate. People get AIDS from blood transfusions. The list is endless. Turn on the evening news tonight and you’re bound to hear about something awful. If there is no God who might have intervened, you know these things had to happen when and where they did. The laws of physics don’t take a holiday just because many nice people happen live in an earthquake zone or in the path of a tornado.

Living without God is liberating. You do what you think is right and you live with the consequences.

Another advantage of living without God is that you don’t waste any time or psychic energy praying. You know that the outcome depends on your own preparation, or the luck of the draw, or the skill of your surgeon, or perhaps the direction the wind is blowing today.

Without God you know that when you do a good deed it won’t get you into heaven. You did it because it was right. You act ethically because it is the way people should act. You have no ulterior motives. This is often puzzling to many believers. They cannot believe that atheists are able to refrain from sin for reasons other than fear of getting caught or being sent to hell.

Fear of getting caught is important. Without cops there would be a lot more robbers. Look what happens in big cities when there is a prolonged power outage. There are no statistics on this point, but I’m sure atheists behave pretty much like everybody else in such chaotic situations. But what about secret crime? What about all the terrible things that happen behind closed doors? Are atheists more likely to molest children, to cheat on their income taxes, to run clever con games, or pollute the environment? Unfortunately there are no statistics to tell us.

But there are statistics on people behind bars. Proportionately there are fewer atheists in jail than in the population at large. I don’t think this is because atheists have better lawyers or are better at evading capture. I think it’s because they’re better people. I can’t prove it, but I believe it.

G is for God2

Does God exist? Well the answer to this question depends on (at least) two things: (1) how you define God and (2) what you mean by the word exist. Let’s deal with the meaning of the word exist first. What we call physical objects such as bowling balls, oranges, and thunder all exist in very obvious ways. We can touch or see or smell or hear or taste them. We have sensory evidence of their existence. (Mirages exist too.) Then there are things like justice. Does justice exist? It surely exists as a concept in the minds of people. Injustice is every bit as real. What about unicorns and centaurs? They exist in drawings and as concepts. No one has ever photographed one, but they still exist in some odd way. As, of course do ghosts, werewolves and leprechauns.

What doesn’t exist? Well, there are no whole numbers between 1 and 2 or between 6 and 7. There are no humming birds that weigh a ton. There is no way of counting the precise number of people in Chicago. There are no cubical planets.

If you want to try to prove that God does not exist you have to begin with a precise description of what is meant by God. If God is a concept like justice then there is no question that One exists. And God surely exists the way unicorns and leprechauns exist. But does God exist the way you exist, or the way hockey sticks or planets exist? In other words, does God inhabit physical space? Most sophisticated believers would say not. But many people believe that God has real existence and exists the way you exist or I exist. Only, of course, the God who exists is immortal and devoid of weakness or limitation. He does not die, nor age, nor get tired, nor fall asleep, nor fail to comprehend, nor get surprised.

But He may turn a blind eye one supposes. And He may fail to act since he is utterly free and has no limits of His ability to act. (Except, of course, for the Law of Non-Contradiction: For instance, God cannot make a puzzle so difficult He could not solve it. Nor can God make a weight so heavy He cannot lift it.)

Spinoza came to believe that God and Nature are the same thing. God is everywhere and everything is God. This odd notion has a name—Pantheism. This makes a lot of sense in the abstract (and it is truly abstract) but when one stops to think about specifics it gets Very Odd Indeed. Consider the following: God is toothpaste. God is vomit. God is cancer. I could on, but it gets disgusting.

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