What’s God have to do with religion?

Whether there’s a god is normally fought out between religious people and irreligious people, as if god=religion and no god=non-religion. I make the case that if there is a god (or even God), nothing even then would point us toward or necessitate religion. I don’t mean “organized religion,” I mean any religion.

But allow me to start with an observation no one will dispute: Definitions of god(s) differ. That is one reason arguments frequently involve enough ill-defined concepts as to resemble conservatives and liberals arguing about socialism. So let me construct a framework for considering whatever it is that does or does not exist.

I shall assume there is a god. I will assume god rather than gods to make this simple. I will leave this god unnamed to avoid at the outset the numerous characteristics different faiths ascribe to the entity. This god has no gender so for now must remain an it. However, completely stripped of characteristics, the word god signifies nothing but a pointless sound. So at this point, god (it) could just as well be represented by X.

That will not do for long, of course, since you can hardly work up a good argument even in Hyde Park speakers’ corner over whether an X exists. In order to get started here it’ll be necessary to prime the pump by agreeing to the most minimal of characteristics. Since my intent—even though starting at such an abstract point—is eventually to be relevant to the common, everyday discussion of God, I fear anything less would have no usefulness as a barebones starting point. Consequently, I propose this startup definition for X:

X is a conscious entity with powers of thought and intention, free of any boundaries of space, time, and power.

Surely X has more attributes than those, but in view of my having only begun this discussion, building a more complete picture of X has to be taken one step at a time. Because we hope to discover or to presume more characteristics, let us label this first stage of our supposition X1. There, now we’re getting someplace!

What can we add to the X1 characteristics? (This is a blog, not a book, so please permit me to omit the fine points.) How about whether X1 takes note in any way of humans on our minuscule orb. Choosing “yes” or “no” to that question can constitute, respectively, the X2 level of conjecture, but with those two alternatives, thereby creating possible choices X2A and X2B. Of course, picking A means rejecting B and vice versa. It is hard to know on what basis we’d make such a supposition, but that’s a nicety I’ll skip blithely past (remember: blog, not book).

I’ll pick “yes” (choice X2A). So beginning with X1, we’ve made our way to X2A in which this entity takes note of humans. (Absent any compelling reason, why not? It seems more interesting and it is the choice most humans have made.) We might have decided upon X2B and would have been directed down an entirely different path of possibilities, but we did not.

Still, even though X2A is aware of us sniveling bipeds, that leads to the next set of possibilities. I can think of quite a range of options within that characteristic, all the way from the mechanistic awareness X2A might have about cell division or capillarity, to intimate knowledge of our species and its psychology.

That range of possible awareness has fifteen possibilities (surely far more, but I’m simplifying). So let’s say, then, that our initial X1‘s awareness of us may at this point have been conjectured to be somewhere on the range of X2A1 to X2A15. Let’s suppose our choice is X2A8, wherein the entity has not just a passing interest in our species, but a more intimate interest in each one of us (the “personal god” idea). Although the existence of X2A was of scientific interest, the choice of X2A8, adds poetic interest as well. Now we really are getting somewhere!

(I realize my labeling—meant to be a helpful tool—is beginning to look like military equipment serial numbers. If you don’t have patience for them, just skim along understanding the idea of sequential, multiple choices from a host of alternatives at each step, along with its attendant mathematical burgeoning. If any smartalecks out there question why I didn’t just say that in the first place, I say get your own blog. Besides, some of these might be useful as passwords.)

Let’s take a breath here just to restate the nature of these options, remembering that with each choice along the way we discard all the other possibilities, not just a couple of options but an unknown number. Let us remember as well that after choosing to reject all those other options, we have so far not gotten down to a choice where there is even a whiff of religion implied. And we should not lose sight that for all the choices so far, we’ve had nothing but our imaginations to set the ranges of possibilities or, worse, to choose among them. But let us plow ahead, for the next level of supposition awaits.

Our assumed entity X2A8 could have a hands off, watchful interest in humans (like deists would have it) or some sort of interaction with individual humans and their environment. The range of possibilities here, too, is a big one, let’s say a range of X2A8A to X2A8M. For argument’s sake, I will choose X2A8F which is, let us suppose, the characteristic wherein X2A8 wants to be shown respect that is due an entity of its obvious grandeur—maybe adulation, gifts of fruit or firstborn, or death of nonbelievers.

Hold it right here a moment. I have gone far enough to bore myself and you and we still haven’t gotten to the point of distinguishing the deities posited by Islam, Mormonism, Catholicism, or the occasional Rastafarian. And within each of these will be further choices of the entity’s positions on dogma and behavior. We are still without data or criteria available to help in picking one option over another, though there are plenty of reasons one might like one versus another or might have been taught one versus another. There are ragged records of the various choices our ancestors made in the last few millennia, but they are contradictory and irrelevant to our choices anyway, since their choices would have been even more uninformed.

I reiterate that we have ignored countless other paths we might have taken in these first few steps of conjecture and will ignore far more as we go on toward greater specificity. Nevertheless, though untold other choices have been discarded, we find some specific person—perhaps you, gentle reader—with a full measure of faith in the resulting X2A8F77J45K5 so strong as to be inseparable from his/her/(your?) very being, so self-evidently true as to be beyond question, in fact so much so that even questioning may be construed to be a capital offense to this version of God.

At this level of specificity for some particular person’s God, a few of the many characteristics of X2A8F77J45K5 may include omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, total perfection, anger about sin but having provided a remedy, disapproving of sex or even desire of sex outside marriage or with a same gender partner, misreading a holy book, use of blood transfusions, missing confession, letting women’s hair show, driving a car……OK, you see where I’m going. (I’d apologize for pairing characteristics that don’t go together—e.g., Muslim and Catholic beliefs—but no matter. As philosophers have pointed out for a long time, pairing omnipotence and perfect goodness doesn’t work either, a discrepancy that doesn’t bother either Christians or Muslims a bit!).

A specific believer who has chosen X2A8F77J45K5 seeks out others of similar faith in order to hear repeatedly and confidently from the pulpit, synagogue, mosque, or confessional that it was right to discard the millions of optional choices (though with no credible reasons for any choice along the way), thus arriving against momentous odds, almost by magic, at the TRUTH. What a commendable range of imagination we have to soothe our fear of the unknown!

Whew. That’s the short version. I skipped lots of steps, many branches in the unfolding options. But I also omitted, in and near the foundational point at the very top where the leverage is huge, that there might indeed have been several X1s. Or that whether there was only one or there were a thousand, it or they may have died or otherwise left the scene—gone to create other universes perhaps? Further on, I failed to mention the range upon which many make the choice that X1 is good (in human terms) or horridly bad. There is absolutely no reason God must be good. When a person remarks that she or he cannot believe in a cruel God, I wonder why not. A universe ruled by a cruel god is no less likely than a good one.

I think the biggest conceptual flaw in what I’ve done here is the order in which I’ve hypothesized which questions/choices confront us at each sequential level. I maintain, however, that the idea of rapidly burgeoning possibilities arising from such a sequence, even an approximated one, is still a valid illustration. Further, for fear of being completely obnoxious, I did not take the remaining choices on to completion, thereby representing what John or Judy Doe believes to be the detailed description of this God, along with slight variations of those choices (beliefs) through his or her lifetime.

It is no surprise, much as we know about our own psychology, that we are willing to give up many of life’s pleasures, pay penance in many forms, and make life miserable for those who have the audacity or ignorance to have chosen X2A8F77J51KU7 instead of the “right” X2A8F77J45K5, and even kill each other from time to time when it seems to our fevered imagination that God (the alleged X2A8F77J45K5, the fantasy to which we’ve subjugated ourselves) demands it. Of course, our race does not analyze and choose so much as it follows and mimics. We pride ourselves on slight variations we select in the name of individualism, unmindful that in almost all respects, we believe what we were taught.

An atheist—at least this atheist—sees going even as far as X1 to be a shot in the dark, so the gulf that exists between a religious believer and atheist or deist on matters of faith is massive. No wonder we talk past each other. Let me point out that I do not proclaim certain knowledge that there is no X1; very few atheists do. We cannot completely dismiss the possibility of there being a “higher power” of some sort, whether X1 or one with specifics we’ve not even considered in all the ages of speculation. But taking seriously that any religion so far has stumbled willy-nilly upon reality is like an infant happening upon the spin of quarks in a proton, so patently ridiculous as to deserve being dismissed out of hand. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is no more preposterous.

If we actually knew there to be an X1, it would be a most interesting fact, perhaps the greatest fact ever uncovered. But unless we make our way through an overwhelming maze of choices with unfathomably good luck, finding there to be a god or gods with religious implications has less chance than one in many thousands, putting concepts like worship, dogma, sin, heaven, hell, salvation, or divinity thoroughly into fantasyland.

Such a low probability is in practice indistinguishable from zero; nada, nothing. We’ve no idea whether a “conscious entity with powers of thought and intention, free of any boundaries of space, time, and power” exists, much less connects to the human practices we call religion. So except in our loosely assembled fiction, whether god does or does not exist has nothing to do with religion.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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