Friday, 21 March 2014

And maybe God is a verb.

Today, as it's Friday, and we're all winding down, we'll just do a quick, easy one. We'll define God.

Or not.

I read an article recently (which I can't find now, or I'd link to it) which examined the motives of those who ask "Do you believe in God". The writer offered several possible reasons, including some sort of need for validation, but seemed to totally miss the basic problem behind the question. That is, quite obviously (to me) that the questioner and the responder may be referring to different things.

I can be a bit of a smart arse, so I commented that my answer would be "Which one?" but in fact, I would never say that. Even if I were thinking it. Because those who ask such a question are either perfectly sincere - in which case it would probably be rather unfair to throw such a question back at them - or they are just about to pounce on you with their beliefs, in which case it would just confuse things, and instead of ending the conversation, it would all get very awkward. There's a time and a place for such discussions.

Which is why we have blogs. This is where we talk about things we probably wouldn't bring up in a social setting, and where we need a bit more space to move in than the sound bytes of Facebook etc.

No, in fact when somebody asks me if I believe in God, I smile politely and change the subject. If they press it, I say it is complicated, and if they press that, I start to get annoyed. These are personal matters, about as personal as it gets actually.

But people DO ASK. They especially ask people like me who are mouthpieces, and it's probably not that surprising really. We probably ask for it. If you write whole books on the topic, they are not even going to hesitate to ask, which is why I was able to quote Robert Wright in a discussion on FB yesterday. His answer is even on Wikipedia:

When asked by Bill Moyers if God is a figment of the human imagination, Wright responds: "I would say so. Now, I don't think that precludes the possibility that as ideas about God have evolved people have moved closer to something that may be the truth about ultimate purpose and ultimate meaning... Very early on, apparently people started imagining sources of causality. Imagining things out there making things happen. And early on there were shamans who had mystical experiences that even today a Buddhist monk would say were valid forms of apprehension of the divine or something. But by and large I think people were making up stories that would help them control the world." 

The thing is, Robert Wright has written a book called "The Evolution of God", and others on similar topics, and is never shy to talk about religion (or God) regardless of which of his many hats he's wearing.

I think he's right. But any discussion on that quote depends on a definition of God, which is not supplied.

But this is a man who recognizes the concept of "forms of apprehension of the divine or something". So is THAT or isn't it, God?

Because you see, I have been told, categorically, that it isn't. And I have been told that, absolutely, it is.

There is a fairly common pop pantheism going on right now, whereby "The Universe" is not only presumed divine, but has a sort of persona. It has feelings, it has intent, and there are plenty of people, Pagan and otherwise, who talk of Mother Earth and suggest the same sense of personage.

In fact I admitted a pantheistic leaning and suggested something to the effect that my understanding of God was "all that is" to an annoying questioner once, and was promptly reprimanded for creating my own definition.

"That's NOT what the word means, you're just trying to dodge the question!"

So, what does it mean?

Before we go any further we need to examine the word deity. This is a useful word, because it suggests "God" without suggesting which one, it's more of an obvious role than a name, and it can refer just as easily to other people's deities as your own. Even if you have a low opinion of other people's deities. It's a neutral sort of word.

(But can I just take this opportunity to point out (because I can) that it's spelled deity (not diety) and that while there is a well-known alternative (cough) pronuncation (see.. I did NOT say "wrong") of dee-ity, the more obviously correct pronunciation is day-ity, because it's from the Latin deus, pronounced day-oos. OK, sorry. Just had to.)

So we have mythology. Mythology is full of deities. THOUSANDS of them. Good deities, bad deities, powerful deities, not so powerful deities, deities you can actually trick, deities that are unreachable, deities that live among us, deities that live somewhere else, and deities with names. Lots of names. Many names for the same deity sometimes. And epithets too, those are extra.

So, the first thing we have to decide, when we talk about "God" is who is included, and who isn't.

For the sake of ease, let's examine Odin. Odin is a Norse deity, and he is pretty much top dog in that pantheon. Back in the days when Odin was worshipped widely by the Norse peoples, he was also known as the "All-Father". If you had asked these people if they believed in God, despite having other deities, it's quite likely they'd have had Odin in mind. But also they'd have thought it was a silly question, because they all believed in Odin. The Norse culture and religion were not separable.

Today there are Neo-Pagans who use the Norse pantheon as their deities, and we must assume they are utterly sincere in this, despite it being optional, and a minority religion even in the same countries. If you asked one of these people if they believe in God, what are you asking them, and what do they mean when they answer?

Let's be honest, generally speaking, when people ask this question, they are either referring to the Abrahamic God (i.e. of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition) or (less often) they are referring to a nebulous concept.

And if a believer in the Abrahamic God asks a person of a similar background or tradition, there's a chance they both know what they mean (even without any solid definition of "God"). It's a insider term.

But if a believer in the Abrahamic God asks a believer in the Norse pantheon if he believes in God, what is he supposed to say?

If he says yes, an assumption is made. Possibly wrongly.
If he says no, a different assumption is made, also possibly wrongly.
If he says "Which one?" he's probably going to be seen as flippant, or rude, or at least difficult.

He can't win, and this would be a good reason not to ask.

It's worth noting that it's usually believers in the Abrahamic God who ask this. Not always, but generally, and there is a solid theological reason for that, they tend to be strict monotheists. That is to say they don't even acknowledge the possibility of other deities. It's theirs or nothing. They have taken the word God from a job description to a personal name. Which is why we need the word deity.

So they feel confident in their use of the term "God" (even if they couldn't give you a definition with a gun in their backs). And if you asked them about OTHER deities, they may well simply dismiss them as fantasy. Only mythological.

Because - here's a definition for you - mythological deities mean other people's deities.

If, on the other hand, you were discussing this with a non-monotheist there's far less chance that the question would be asked in the first place (polytheists and pantheists are far more likely to mind their own business) but if the topic comes up, they are also more likely to have broader view of what a deity is, and specifically who (or what) "God" is.

It could be the Atman or Brahman, couldn't it.

Now, I am not going to insist that any of these are correct or incorrect, and this not despite the fact I propose that agnoticism is the only credible position, but precisely because of that.

Hang on, who threw that in? Agnosticism? Why mention that?

Because this whole spew came about partly* as a result of a comment about Robert Wright. Who calls himself an agnostic. Not a believer, but, importantly, not a non-believer either.

And you CAN say that God is a figment of the imagination and also be an actual believer.

How? Well, that person up there asking about Odin did it, quite easily. A theist seems to find no difficulty whatsoever referring to somebody else's deity as a figment of the imagination.

Robert Wright, as it happens, is very interested in Buddhism, and while describing himself as "not hardcore" has actually been on week-long meditations. That's hardly dabbling, either. As a psychologist he's fascinated by the effects of meditation, and as a questioning person he has obviously explored the connections between meditation, prayer, religious experience, and all that jazz.

As a questioning person who is also a fan of meditation, I have explored those connections too, and I conclude that this is most definitely all in the same area. It's something outside of science, it's something outside of humanity, it's something you can talk about forever and not understand, because it's something you have to experience.

Next question then. Are such experiences anything to do with "God"? Plenty of people are not religious at all, would describe themselves as non-theists, or even atheists (and if you don't know the difference between those two, feel free to ask) and yet they have a concept of spirituality, or of "energy" (and they are not talking about propane), or of empathic ability, or of astrology, or any number of things that are outside science, and some of these people are very clearly on the mystical track.

I suppose the next question is whether any of this is supernatural or simply things we don't yet understand. There's a whole other blog possible there. But perhaps a better question for now is whether it's supernatural.....or superstition. And what does that mean anyway? Is it even related to theism? Can you have one without the other? Why is some superstition "bad", while yours is just fine?

Have you noticed that this post is full of questions, and very few of my usual statements?

That's because, as I implied earlier, I contend that anyone who claims to KNOW (be they believers or non-believers) are full of it. All they have is their own experience, their own view, their own biases, and their own opinions. Their own beliefs, in fact, which are meaningless to anyone else. They are fully entitled to whatever views they have, but they are not entitled to judge the beliefs of others, in whatever form they take, because quite frankly none of them really know what they are talking about.

I would even go far as to say that if you ask a person whether they believe in God, then you don't really get it at all.

Which is my ultra-long way of saying that if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

*I also have a far longer post brewing called "Believers and Skeptics". Consider this an introduction or companion piece to that.


  1. Excellent! I would offer, all of these many religious and spiritual labels aside, there exists the old (nay, ancient) concept that there are those who hold to the "nameless G-d" of the Judaic culture (and others).

    The idea being one more of respect/awe, and maybe a little mindful understanding, than personification. ~ Blessings!

    1. Yes, I've never quite understood that. I'll avoid the topic so as not to cause offence.

  2. Great post which offers loads to ponder. All I know is, I know nutting. At some point the atoms that made up my body will once again be dispersed to the cosmos. In the meantime, I try not to take myself too seriously, remember to seek kindness, be compassionate and laugh whenever possible. Bliss can be found every day. All one needs to is to let it be.

  3. Perhaps this is why Shiva dances?

  4. I think that everyone will judge others, I think it's in our nature. It is what we do with that judgment. You're not a Christian believer and that's fine. I've judged that you are not a Christian believer. But I like you and I like your recipes and I value your intellectual capabilities. I hope that makes sense.

    So I have judged you to have different beliefs than mine. That will not prevent me from asking for your opinion or checking out your recipes or have a bit of relationship with you.

    I think that's another point?

    1. Hold that thought, wait for the next episode :)