What does it mean to “believe in God,” as 95% of the population professes to do?
As an academically-trained linguist and a secular humanistic Jew, I’ve thought about this question for many years and listened to how people answer it.
One answer I’ve observed is “I believe in Bible God:” a supernatural being who communicates with people and intervenes, albeit mysteriously and unpredictably, in earthly events not unlike the God of the Torah (whose violent and vindictive streak has been whitewashed by centuries of “commentary”).
Many people behave as if God listens to prayers. Most worship services I’ve attended consist of endless adulation and supplication, often accompanied by genuflection, prostration and another humiliating body language.
But people talk to God outside of the church as well, especially since public piety has such enormous social value in America. They also give him credit when things go well. “Thank God” is an established, almost involuntary verbal reaction – even I have used it, God help me.
Other people believe in what I call “Cosmological God” he/she/it created the universe and set the laws of nature in motion, but that’s it. This version of God doesn’t talk to people or intervene in human history. Nevertheless, there are educated, sophisticated people who believe all this and still attend prayer services.
“God is ____.”
Beyond this, the semantics start to get a bit slippery. This is the “many definitions of God” school of thinking. God is love, God is nature, God is the Ground of Being, God is gaia, God is the infinite potentiality that underlies all matter and energy, God is the force behind the creation of the universe and the laws of nature…the list is endless.
People who define God this way are ignoring the fact that we already have names for all of these items: love, nature, the ground of being, and so forth.
By declaring that one of these things is God, one is saying, “this is very, very important to me.” Such a declaration also sounds (at least to me) like an implicit message to the people who believe in “Bible God” (i.e., the vast majority), a message that says something like “Hey, don’t exclude me I believe in God too.”
“God is love” and all other such expressions are a way of subtly avoiding “Bible God” and “Cosmological God” but not rejecting God.
(By the way, the same logic applies to Reconstructionists and self-proclaimed “humanists” who don’t actually believe in God – but spin the Torah and character of God, so that both seem worthy of great reverence. These folks are hypocrites in two ways, believing neither in the traditional program nor in the bold alternative first articulated by Rabbi Sherwin Wine over 30 years ago: Judaism without God.)
And yet, to a secular humanist, committed to the truth of experience, God is an undeniable phenomenon. There is no question that God exists in the minds of at least some of those who profess to believe in him (I will, to save words, omit the other two pronouns her and it, but they should be understood). Entire schools of theology and divinity are predicated on God’s existence. Countless hours are devoted to communicating with him.
People may say that God does not exist in the physical but in the metaphysical world. But how is “metaphysical” different from “imaginary”? If an entity is not physical, where is it, if not in your mind?
I do not mean to imply that God is not real to the people who believe in him. There is abundant evidence that the reality created by the mind can be perceived by the mind as identical to reality produced from outside, i.e., from the sense organs. Classic examples include hallucinations, psychoses, phantom limb pain – in fact, many psychosomatic illnesses, including chronic pain that seems to have no physiological basis.
Such is the case with God. He is not real for those who do not believe in him, real for those who do.
An analogous example would be an alien abduction experience: yes, perhaps you were drawn up into an alien spaceship and anally probed, but if I had been there, what would I have seen? So, discounting doubt and hypocrisy, it appears that the difference between sincere belief and sincere non-belief is somehow related to actual differences in neurology, which lead to differences in subjective experience.
God = shared, consensual subjectivity
This brings us to an atheist’s definition of God: a shared, consensual subjectivity. “Shared,” because the same mental images are (or are professed to be) shared by all believers. “Consensual,” because everyone agrees to take part in the group delusion. “Subjectivity,” because God exists only in the minds of those who act and think as if he exists.
Why people continue to believe
On the Qualitative Believability Scale, God rates just behind Superman. Both of them have elaborate backstories, and the exploits of both have been voluminously chronicled. But at least we agree on what Superman looks like. God doesn’t have the verifiability of, say, Julius Caesar.
Then what keeps the believer’s faith so strong? Over the centuries, anger, fear, violence, and ostracism have been powerful conformity tools of every religion.
Violence is one of the most pernicious results of trying to apply ancient and medieval texts to modern times. It’s possible to choose to read an ancient religious text as a prescription for violence. You can find passages in Deuteronomy which consist of instructions for ethnic cleansing of the lands that the Israelites are to conquer. But the Jews gave up violence for many centuries. Still, the passages are there.
There are also powerful and positive motivations to believe in God.
Social belonging is a huge motivator. Nobody wants to be left out of the circle of family, friends, and community.
Then there are the rewards that religious belief and ritual provide: God offers what no superhero – even Superman, who can go back in time – can deliver: relief from existential anxiety about the harsh realities of personal accountability (“God’s will be done”), of chaos (“it’s all part of God’s plan”), and, best of all, of death (via the promise of reincarnation, heaven, etc.).
The price of comfort
All this comfort comes at a high price and that’s in addition to all the humiliating praying and the other meaningless, anachronistic worship behaviors.
One big downside of belief in God is that it encourages passivity.
Resignation in face of the inevitable is not bad. But passivity that can actually affect one’s life is bad. Letting someone else decide that you should accept a miserable existence because of the payoff in the next world…or that an ancient text is sacred, you should kill other human beings because they happen to read that same text differently – these are extremely bad.
Another huge downside is that correct ritual can excuse inhumane behavior – everything from Crusades and Inquisitions to spouse abuse and child molestation. As long as you do and say the right things, you can get away with anything.
I hope I’ve explained why believers and nonbelievers will never convert each other. It’s pointless to try. But among the seeming-to-believers and the trying-to- be-believers, there may be those who are open to doubt.
There may be people who have never heard any but the official program, who imagine there must be some alternative, but who can’t figure out what it would be. For such people, secular humanism may be the path to spiritual salvation. You really can be good without God.