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On God’s Existence and Non-Existence

April 29th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 10 Comments

Who shall I bother first? Let’s start with the theists…

God most definitely does not “exist”

Quite simply, in terms of empirical, material existence, I think most modern theists would agree that God does not have a material form, a material existence. God is not a physical being residing within this universe. Right?

To borrow from Terry Eagleton’s critical review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, titled Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching:

. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

Right, now for the other side:

God most definitely does exist

Another statement that should be hard to argue with: some people believe God created the universe, other people believe humans created God, and a third group of people have not decided between these two perspectives but would agree that one of the two (or both?) is true. Did I miss anyone? Because all three groups, described this way, implicitly believes that God “exists”.

In terms of deducing the existence of something based on the empirically testable effects that that thing has, God most definitely does have an effect, therefore does exist. Even if you don’t believe in the supernatural or in divine “intervention”, having a belief in God has a very real impact on the believer and their approach to life.

Causality and Creator, Design and Creativity

On this blog, when discussing religion, I don’t care so much about that causality question (who created whom). In a pre-modern world-view, or an eastern mystical world-view, I don’t think causality carries very much weight? Humanity evolved and grew, to the point where it “discovered” either God or the God meme (idea), a particular way of viewing and/or talking about the world — a personified idea, just like we personify cats and cars and ships and stars, in order to relate better. Without a notion of causality, or looking at it from outside space-time, the question “which came first?” doesn’t actually make that much sense… With a general-relativity understanding of the universe, time is the fourth dimension. The question of “before” and “after” only makes sense when you actually have a time axis, a defined before and after, which we only have within the universe.

If you define God as “creator” or “creative force”, creativity could be considered “transcendent” of time. (Ignoring the problem of trying to define “creativity”…) Such creative acts can be found in many places. They can be found in human minds busy “designing” something. Can they be found in completely random mutations, filtered by natural selection? Those mutations could be considered “creative”, could they not?

What is “design” by a human mind anyway? A number of random perturbations in your brain’s neural network, filtered by a selection process to come up with something useful (by some human understanding of usefulness), producing something that we call “designed”? In what way is the result of evolution not a design? (Before you can talk about existence or non-existence of a conscious designer, you first have the problem of trying to define what conscious means… Personify the evolutionary process and metaphorically consider it a “conscious” process?)

So what’s left to discuss then?

(Wikipedia links for those not familiar with some of the more esoteric terms.)

We can talk about different understandings of “God”. The typical theistic God (including monotheistic, henotheistic and polytheistic) is in no means limited to the “setting the universe in motion” role. (That God-concept is known as deism.) There are other roles and aspects too. However, a modernistic, reductionistic approach to trying to describe “What God Is”, is in some ways like trying to pin down a hologram. It doesn’t quite work. God isn’t a “modern” concept, it is quite the opposite of reductionistic.

In a previous post, I talked about The Personal God aspect of “What is God”. This aspect of God is quite distinct from the “creator” role. It is this aspect of God that has influence in our contemporary culture. We don’t see the theist’s God revealed in acts of creation, but rather in the statements and acts of God’s followers. Or more correctly, various groups of followers of diverse understandings of “God” (and here I include even polytheistic understandings).

Unlike the existence or non-existence of God, I believe these aspects of religious belief are very accessible to discussion, with regards to which beliefs have value, and which are harmful or misleading. Consider for a trivial example, the belief of it being good to slay unbelievers. With so many different notions or understandings of God, every person is an unbeliever with regards to at least some perspective or understanding. Hence we all end up killing each other. This is possibly the greatest concern of the “New Atheist movement”, which often cites 9/11 as the tipping point into activism. (However, isn’t Islamic terrorism more political than religious?)

ps. If all theists understood what Terry Eagleton understands about Christianity and such theologically informed doctrines, Dawkins would not have written that book. Or it would have looked very different. According to Eagleton, Dawkins “understands nothing of these traditional doctrines”. I’d point out that most likely, that merely reflects Christian fundamentalism’s lack of understanding of these doctrines, as that is what he is responding to.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben-Jammin' // Apr 29, 2008 at 3:11 am

    (However, isn’t Islamic terrorism more political than religious?)

    The separation of religion from politics is not present in Islamic countries. The religion IS politics.

    FYI: http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=26601055

    Fundamentalist American Christianity wants to roll back the Enlightenment.

  • 2 Hugo // Apr 29, 2008 at 3:37 am

    True, good point. Thanks Ben(-Jammin’).

    How do you feel about Obama’s religion, or views on religion, btw? With reference to e.g. this: http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2008/03/obama-bible-and-separation-of-church.html

    There’s probably a better post discussing this. Maybe the Friendly Atheist also shared that piece? I originally discovered Obama via his blog. ;) I know he likes Obama… I assume he still does?

  • 3 Ben-Jammin' // Apr 29, 2008 at 4:40 am

    How do you feel about Obama’s religion, or views on religion, btw?

    Disappointed. But, that’s to be expected. He buys into the pseudo science about vaccines, and his energy ideas are only mediocre. Better than his competition but that’s not saying much.

    Politics are soooo depressing right now. I don’t know what we should do if McCain gets elected. Canada? Europe? Stay put and endure?

  • 4 Kenneth Oberlander // Apr 29, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing.

    I cannot even begin to parse this statement. Is this simply deferring the name God to the cause of the universe, if indeed it had such a thing? If so, we have no idea what caused it. Why use the name God? This is redefining the definition of God.

    Because all three groups, described this way, implicitly believes that God “exists”.

    No. Group number two can argue that God is a concept. It exists as much as the concept of the FSM, or fairies, or zero, or phylogenetic theory. Because one can imagine an infinite number of concepts or ideas, only those that can actually be tested against evidence are ideas that exist. The rest are patterns of neurons firing.

    In terms of deducing the existence of something based on the empirically testable effects that that thing has, God most definitely does have an effect, therefore does exist. Even if you don’t believe in the supernatural or in divine “intervention”, having a belief in God has a very real impact on the believer and their approach to life.

    Again, I disagree. The second sentence (which I agree with) does not logically follow from the first. If you are arguing that the actions of believers are evidence that God exists, then you are unnecessarily imposing an extra assumption on a more basic idea, namely that people act on beliefs. The God assumption is irrelevant. No matter the impact of the belief on the life of a believer, such an impact does not mean the belief is real.

    ps. If all theists understood what Terry Eagleton understands about Christianity and such theologically informed doctrines, Dawkins would not have written that book. Or it would have looked very different. According to Eagleton, Dawkins “understands nothing of these traditional doctrines”. I’d point out that most likely, that merely reflects Christian fundamentalism’s lack of understanding of these doctrines, as that is what he is responding to.

    I couldn’t agree more. God has different meanings to different people. So long as people believe in meanings that can be evaluated against the real world, most of those meanings can be disproven and discarded. But most people would not recognise the god that would emerge on the other side of such an approach…such a God would be stripped of virtually all recognisable aspects.

    Ben Jammin:

    Politics are soooo depressing right now. I don’t know what we should do if McCain gets elected. Canada? Europe? Stay put and endure?

    Good luck. A slightly off-topic question: what do you think are McCain’s chances? Does it depend on whether Clinton or Obama is the Dem nominee?

  • 5 Hugo // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I cannot even begin to parse this statement. Is this simply deferring the name God to the cause of the universe, if indeed it had such a thing? If so, we have no idea what caused it. Why use the name God? This is redefining the definition of God.

    I’m not sure Terry Eagleton is a theist. I think he is rather trying to explain what the “sophisticated theists” believe, and why Dawkins’ book is not responding to that. And yes, “sophisticated theology” is something quite abstract and hard to understand. ;) Wikipedia paragraph about the review:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Eagleton#Religion

    On the rest of your comments, yes, I’m using “exist” in a sense that you could argue that the FSM also does “exist”. Clearly I’m not talking about the materialistic sense… “Exists as a concept”? Sure. Like zero or a theory. But I’d not want to say “like fairies”, as fairies are defined as existing in the real material sense.

    From the Eagleton review again:

    Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.

    Anyway, can we then agree that as a concept God most definitely exists? ;) And that belief in this concept has an effect on people’s actions?

  • 6 Kenneth Oberlander // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I’m not sure Terry Eagleton is a theist. I think he is rather trying to explain what the “sophisticated theists” believe, and why Dawkins’ book is not responding to that.

    Dawkins himself responds to this quite well, in my opinion…basically, he states that if only such a sophisticated theistic position would be espoused by all Christians, then he would have no problem with religion. But the majority of Christians don’t hold this position. They still believe in a real father-figure-in-the-sky, who sends angels and miracles and who fights against Satan and will return to earth in a blaze of glory at some unspecified time in the future.

    Anyway, can we then agree that as a concept God most definitely exists? And that belief in this concept has an effect on people’s actions?

    Most definitely!

  • 7 Pieter // Apr 29, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Hehe…that was cool.

  • 8 Hugo // Apr 30, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Thanks Pieter. ;)

    basically, he states that if only such a sophisticated theistic position would be espoused by all Christians, then he would have no problem with religion.

    Indeed. So my dream with this site is to try to give people that option. If by raising awareness and education, everyone ends up thinking some more, having a “sophisticated theistic position” or a humanistic position, that’s great.

    From comment 25 on Would You Please Reschedule Your Crisis?, de-conversion.com:

    the chaplain: My loss of faith also proceeded from conservative through liberal belief to no god-belief. I think it may be a common path to de-conversion.

    karen: I agree. Dan Barker describes a similar progression. His famous quote, “When I got to the end of the bathwater, I found out there was no baby!”

    Even if people get “stuck” at the McLaren stage of liberal belief, or follow the non-theistic Christianity (!) of Spong, they are much better off – and so are we all – than those who are mired in fundamentalism.

    The McLaren stage of “liberal belief” will be encouraged on this blog, as a good place to be, for those that are currently stuck in fundamentalism.

    Posts like these and the other ones, are largely trying to hack out the stance of this blog, before I tackle the things that are of much greater concern.

  • 9 Ben-Jammin' // Apr 30, 2008 at 2:46 am

    A slightly off-topic question: what do you think are McCain’s chances? Does it depend on whether Clinton or Obama is the Dem nominee?

    The national polls say otherwise, but I think McCain’s chances are very low. Bush has a 30-odd % approval rating and McCain voted with Bush’s positions 95% and 89% in 2007 and 2006. (In 2007 he had the highest % in the entire Senate.)

    http://www.cqpolitics.com/wmspage.cfm?parm1=57

    Once the democrates settle on a nominee, I hope they can successfully paint McCain as a continuation of Bush policies. That would also work well with the result that 80% of the U.S. thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction.

    I don’t know how much of that is hope and how much is clear-headed analysis. It’s not worth $0.02.

  • 10 Children Church Beliefs at Stellenbosch Gemeente // Jun 3, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    [...] not particularly interested in discussing on this blog, beyond what I’ve mentioned in my post On God’s Existence and Non-Existence. I consider this more of an axiomatic statement, or definition of world-view/language. Acceptance [...]

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