Thursday, 20 June 2013

What is God?

When we talk about God (capital G God) we're talking about what theists believe is the creator of the universe. I know there's pretty much as many definitions as there are theists but I think it's safe to say that most people think of God as the being that created everything and is in control of everything and who decides who gets to heaven and, if that religion has it, hell. Some people believe this being to be real. Others don't. Then there are poly-theists who believe in gods and goddesses rather than a single God.

But what is God really?

God is sometimes presented as a 'model' for the creation of the universe. God isn't a model. It isn't even a hypothesis. It's a wild guess at the very best. The 'god' answer to how the universe was 'created' is barely worth considering. It's a wild stab in the dark dreamt up by people who didn't yet know how to rationally investigate anything.

You might hear that 'someone' must have created the universe. But of course this is not true. What's more accurate is that 'someTHING' must have caused the universe to be in the form we see it today. There is no evidence to suggest that our universe was ever deliberately created.

When people posit God as a reasonable explanation for the existence of the universe they seem to be forgetting something - God has never been the verifiable conclusion to any mystery. Ever. There is no exception. To suggest that God created the universe is to go from the understanding that God is not demonstrably responsible for anything, to claiming that God is magically responsible for everything. We used to think God was responsible for lightning, eclipses, thunder, tides, epileptic fits, mountains, and so on. Investigation into these things shows they all have natural explanations - no god needed.

So God becomes the ultimate give-up answer. It's your answer when you can't be bothered looking any longer or the question seems too hard. God is how ancient peoples said 'I don't know'. Ancient people didn't investigate lightning and reach a verifiable conclusion that a god was throwing it across they sky. They had no idea what was causing it. They didn't yet have the means to investigate what was happening. They didn't know - so they called it God.

It's the classic argumentum ad ignorantiam or argument from ignorance. There is a gap in knowledge and rather than performing a thorough and detailed investigation, the claimant says 'God did it' and is very often believed but never, ever validated. 

Then there's the personal side of God. The part that people think answer prayers and gets us through tough times. Now we know prayer doesn't work. It's been shown time and time again and I needn't go into it here. If you doubt me (and you should) just give it a quick google.

Another part of the emotional god is the god that will get you through tough times. People will pray to this god for strength. They'll praise it when the tide turns and things look bright again. We all go through incredibly hard times in life, not all of us are praying to any god to get through them. But we still manage it and we know that it was us relying on other people (family, friends, colleagues, professionals) in combination with our own inner strength.

I recently had this exchange on twitter with a lady who I'll call S:

Me: I think a question theists don't ask enough is not why god, but why THEIR god? Why are they the religion they are and not another. I bet it's rare that they reached the age of reason and did a thorough, in-depth analysis of the various claims and came to a conclusion - - that just one of the religions was right and they therefore decided to join. No, it's that they are the religion of their parents. S: I was not baptised at birth and my father was Anglican I chose Catholicism. I do not subscribe to any now and yes I know that I baffle the crap out of ya. :( but generally speaking you would be correct. Children are usually baptised into the religion of the parents without a choice Me: And that's how religion survives. Imagine if you weren't allowed to teach religion to people until they were 25 and already had a scientific understanding of the universe. Religion would all but disappear in a generation. S: I understand what you are saying but it makes me sad to a degree. God has been my rock for many years. Me: I would suggest that YOU have been your rock. You've just labelled that part of you god. :)

S: Through my tears I want to say I love you for saying that and thank you. :)

I have no doubt that S is convinced that the god she happens to believe in was her 'rock' but I stand by what I said to her - SHE is the rock. Whatever she needed a rock for it was HER that got her through it. Her own strength was what she relied on, she just called it God. This leads to one of the things that bugs me about religion - it teaches people to discredit their own qualities.

Without any good reason to do so some people think they have a soul and this soul 'lives on' after a person dies. Many people don't want to think that this life is it, that dead is truly the end. To avoid this confrontational thought they imagine an afterlife where they hope to live 'forever' and, of course, to see loved ones again. God, they think, is this hope.

Another thing that happens is that people want to discriminate and oppress. Have a problem with homosexual people? Blame Leviticus 18:22. Want women to be submissive to their husbands? Ephesians 5:22-24. Or Qur'an 4:34 for instructions on how much a man can beat his wife. I could fill an entire blog on its on with instructions from the bible and the Qur'an on how to discriminate against and oppress people. The avenue that 'allows' this kind of thinking is, obviously, the word of 'God'. 

So what does it boil down to? What is God?

God is a cheat for intellectual laziness, a crutch for emotional frailty, a pacifier for the fear of death and an excuse for prejudice and discrimination.


  1. Oh, I really like this post! (I came from Twitter)

    I have tried explaining the same thing myself, about primitive peoples who didn't understand the movement of the sun, disease, etc. But thanks for putting it across so eloquently.

    Also, while I don't actually think bashing things the Bible says (even though it's a ridiculous book) is the best way to go about it because all it does is raise tensions and lead to circular arguments where people say things in Caps Lock like 'God moves in mysterious ways', a good way is just being skeptical (and I noticed the 'which you should [doubt you]' part, kudos.

    The reason I'm an atheist is simply that I find it really, really unlikely that a thinking, choosing - sentient - god exists (although it's possible that there's a supreme being at the centre of the universe, you have to examine how you define life - is a god alive, or can a 'god' be a thing, like the sun? I think that's a very interesting philosophical concept).

    I'm only a young teenager, but I broke out of it early and I think it's because of all the reading I do - no better enemy for religious dogma than self-education! I was born into and still live in a very Catholic home, but - even though people say 'Oh, it's just a rebellious teenage phase', it's not. I'm not rebellious without good cause, and I'm simply too educated to believe in silly things like this.

    I firmly believe that religion will die out eventually - maybe a hundred years, maybe a few thousand - but I have to hold onto that, because a world where religion rules is just depressing. So I LOVE the idea of only teaching religion after 25 - what makes me laugh is that if that were proposed people would refuse, BECAUSE THEY'RE INSECURE ABOUT THEIR RELIGION AND KNOW NOBODY WOULD BELIEVE IN IT.

    So if you ever become President/Prime Minister of wherever you're from, or if I become supreme dictator of the entire world ( ;) ), let's agree to set the precedent and make that law. No feeding children rubbish, because I'm barely out of my childhood and I know how hard it was to escape the false sense of security and dogma. Even now I sometimes find myself starting to say 'please god' in times of trouble, until I catch myself and realise that makes no sense. That wouldn't happen if I hadn't been forcefed it all through my childhood.

    Great post.

    1. Thank you for the kind comments :) I'm glad you were able to break out of the cycle yourself and I hope you've found a comfortable community on twitter to be part of. :)

      If you do become supreme dictator of the entire world (good luck with that) I will be sure to spend time being glad that I'm on your side ;)

  2. You've done little to distinguish or address the multiple reasons or motivations for belief in a god, and assumed the faithful to be a part of a homogenous whole. You also seem to have dismissed the plausibility of a deity as a distinct and separate possibility.

    I agree with your conclusions. But I don't think its credible to claim god is the result of 'intellectual laziness'. First because the term sounds puerile itself. And secondly it over exaggerates scientific capabilities to the point of claiming it's own immaculate superiority . Not even Dawkins, the granddaddy of atheism is so pompous. On his own 'Dawkins scale' he places himself at 6 not 7, for absolute certainty on the question of gods existence.

    However backward it may be, the concept of 'god' is still an abductive hypothesis employed to explain complex phenomena. Belonging to the infancy of our species? Perhaps. But the result of laziness? Hardly. Theologians and philosophers a like, in their pursuit of the holy grail of the meta physics, are arguably part of the longest tradition of intellectual inquiry. However misguided their efforts maybe, you cannot discount their undeniable pursuit of knowledge. Lazy is an unwarranted verb in this context.

    1. Thanks for you comments Dr.D.

      I guess what I may have not have been clear about is that 'cheat for intellectual laziness' isn't referring to all theists always. It's a specific description of many (majority?) of the theists I interact with, particularly on twitter. I thought of it in relation to comments such as 'if you want proof of god...look around you'. Clearly a comment from a person who has not taken the time to thoroughly investigate the reasons why that which is around us is actually there.

      So although it may not be the case for all theists, just as god being a crutch for emotional frailty is not the case for all theists, I do see daily, many theists who, when the outer layers are stripped away, are saying that they believe in god because there's an area of science they don't understand. It's the classic argument from ignorance.

      I'm not saying the idea of god is the result of intellectual laziness, I'm saying people hold onto their belief in god because they haven't taken the time to investigate the natural causes to the phenomena they attribute to the god in which they happen to believe.

      Is belief in god always a result of intellectual laziness? No. It is ever? Yes.

  3. Thanks for your reply Monsieur Atheist!

    Your last paragraph justifies, and annotates your claims better than the original article. Kudos to you. I still don't like the term though. I don't think it fits the description of the people you are trying to categorise.

  4. Today I am strong, I am proud, I am independent, & most importantly I am happy & complete. I am my higher power.

  5. To pick up and expand your theme of "discredit their own qualities", religion devalues the one life people do have. Firstly by saying to their devotees, "Give me your wealth and toil and I will give you a better life in return after you are dead." More insidiously though, by believing in an afterlife people will never maximise or fully enjoy the life they do have.