(This reflects my own internal musings over the past few weeks, already discussed in a blog entry ‘The Nature of God?‘ last month.)
We’ve reached a time in history where most well educated people have developed a deep skepticism of religion. Even those who still profess a faith often treat it as a minor aspect of life, something held on to out of habit more than conviction. In Europe only 20% of the population still believes there is a God. Even here in the US core biblical knowledge that all used to share is becoming rarer. When I was a child everyone learned about, say Jonah and the Whale, and knew who Abraham and Isaac were. If I ask a class that now a days only one or two out of thirty students will know.
The skepticism of religion seems to answer the question “is there a God” with “no.” But really, the question goes unasked. Instead a particular belief system is being replaced by another one. Atheism generally is an embrace of materialism (belief in the dominance of matter, or things which can be seen and measured in the world) and rational logical thought. This was the enlightenment alternative to religious faith and tradition, after all, and the enlightenment is winning.
A belief that matter is all that matters (pun intended) has to be called into question, especially as scientists learn more about the nature of matter, time-space and the universe/multiverse. A focus on reason or rational thought discounts the entire emotional side of human existence, relegating the part of our experience that gives us a true sense of meaning — joy, anger, happiness, sorrow, etc. — to second class status. In short, even if one thinks that particular theological perspectives or religious dogmas cannot be believed, that shouldn’t automatically lead to an embrace of materialism and rationalism as the proper way to understand life. Reason, after all, cannot provide ethics or morality, it is only a tool that can lead to conclusions based on evidence and assumptions. Reason does not tell us what our values should be.
So I would start by going back to the question: is there a God?
The first aspect of answering any question is to define the term. What does God mean, especially if we’re asking in the abstract, rather than asking about a particular God-story. The Christian, Muslim, or Hindu Gods may all be fiction, but that doesn’t mean there is no God. For any of their beliefs to be right, there first has to be a positive answer to the central question on God’s existence.
There are various ways God can be described. God is the prime mover, the one who set the world in motion. Before Newtonian physics was modified by Einstein the need of a prime mover caused most people to accept the need for a God. And it does seem like science requires if not a prime mover, at least something to cause the “big bang” or to generate space-time. So part one of a viable God concept is that God is something that is outside space time that in some way caused this universe or world we experience to come into being. At this point there is no requirement God be a conscious entity, just a causal mechanism. And, being outside space-time, there is no need to ask “what created God” – creation and a “beginning” are attributes of being in space-time.
God could also be seen as a spiritual presence. Here the going gets trickier. Religious experience is real, documented over time (famously by William James), and has the capacity to create happiness, improve recovery from disease and yield a more satisfying life. But how do we understand that experience? It doesn’t seem to matter what religion one believes either — all Gods seem capable of miracles. The usual way to approach this in a materialist sense is to see it as a psychological aspect of humanity; religious experience is a chemical reaction of the brain.
But that’s unsatisfying. Depression, for instance, is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but do we really want to say that all ‘negative’ emotions and experiences can be “fixed” chemically? Can we find a “religious” chemical treatment that gains the benefits of religious experience without actually having the faith? Such a “brave new world” approach to psychology is scary. Perhaps chemical imbalances are caused by a mix of stress, negative thoughts, and cultural pressures. To focus just on treating the symptoms would be to ignore the causes and the possibility that human mental health is more than just chemical reactions.
The spiritual/emotional/inspirational side of life can’t be found in purely material terms, it’s the stuff of dreams, internal meditation, reflection, imagination and art. We have to have a different standard of observation, more subjective and comparative than use of the scientific method. If we do that, then a wide realm of possibilities open up.
So I would posit the following God concept: God refers to an essence outside space and time. As such it is likely immaterial, in that it would not be subject to the laws of nature as we experience them in our space-time universe. As I noted last month, if we see reality as primarily spirit (or consciousness) rather than stuff (or matter), then there is a good chance that a God would have consciousness.
Looked at in this way the question of “Is there a God?” has three possible answers: a) Since we cannot not determine for certain yes or no, it’s a pointless question; b) the probability is that there is no conscious God and any causal mechanism for the world’s existence has a natural/material basis; or c) the probability that there is a God is great, with God defined as a force/source outside of space time (at least in part) with some form of consciousness.
“C” is a superior answer since “a” requires us to dismiss thoughts about the nature of life and our purpose as irrelevant since we can’t have certainty. I’m fine with uncertainty. “B” requires dismissing as unlikely the possibility of anything outside of matter and relegates consciousness to mere chemical/material reactions. That may be the case, but it seems a leap of faith to assume that’s the case. “C” leaves open a vast range of possibilities from pantheism to a kind of deism, virtually all existing religious beliefs, and a variety of spiritual and philosophical perspectives (including Plato’s notion of the ideal).
So yes, there is very likely a God with some kind of consciousness existing at least in part outside space/time. But what God is remains ill defined. Is it a part of all of us (are we all aspects of God?), is it a spiritual force, is it an entity with individual identity? Those are harder questions. So I guess for now I’m a Deist.