The Big Questions: Do You Believe In God?

[From time to time I will share some thoughts about the questions that define philosophy, the questions that have remained unanswered, but constantly pondered, for millennia.  Given the enormity of the task, I especially encourage comments – if they are thoughtful – to provoke further discussion and reflection.]

In order to begin to talk about the existence of God, which for me is of fundamental importance for reaching almost any conclusion about living an ethical life, or really about making any philosophical decision, it is important (here even more than elsewhere) to have definitional clarity.  As such, I will provide a few simple terms and working definitions.  The important distinction that I wish to focus on will become clear by looking first, at a belief in a god, i.e. a being with mostly indefinable characteristics who created the universe.  What such a being has done since, or does currently, is up for debate (i.e. is god a “blind watchmaker” or does god constantly monitor every single facet of the universe?).  On the other hand, one may have a belief, as millions do, in the Judeo-Christian conception of god (or, for that matter, any religiously defined conception of god).  This god is a popular ‘answer’ to the question of ‘which characteristics does the above-mentioned god have?’  In other words, the first god mentioned is a subset of the Judeo-Christian god in that the first god has fewer characteristics attributed to it intrinsically.  Beyond that definitional distinction, I wish to briefly state that I take an agnostic to be one who does not state whether he or she believes in a god because it is not possible for a human to know such a thing (according to the agnostic), and that I take an atheist to be one who does believe that one can know whether god exists or not, and the atheist believes he or she knows that god does not exist.

With that background in place, I will simply state my beliefs at this point in my life, while trying to back them up as best I can, given that this topic is immensely complex.  Using the above definitions, I currently hold to the beliefs identified as atheist with regards to a Judeo-Christian conception of god, while remaining an agnostic with regards to the first, general type of god mentioned above.

As for justification of this belief, I must state up front that for the vast majority of my life I have been a theist, believing in the Jewish conception of god.  However, this must be qualified by saying that I did not subject that belief to anywhere near the proper amount of scrutiny that such a foundational belief requires (in my philosophical view of such things now).  In the relatively shorter amount of time during which I have scrutinized my belief in god, I have come away with the belief that god, as defined by the Bible, does not exist.  In order to justify this belief, I will briefly consider a few points that I hope to further expand on at another time.  Until that is complete though, let me attempt to illustrate what I base my beliefs on.  A combination of reason and intellectual honesty/consistency underwrite many, if not all, of the philosophical opinions that I hold after reflection.  These assumption can be questioned, like any others, separately, and more research on my part is required in order to see whether they are safe from (intellectual) attack.  However, given these background assumptions, it follows that any account of god that I would believe it is required to be reasonable and consistent, given the evidence encompassed by the totality of my life experience.  As such, I believe that the evidence I have received is insufficient for such a belief in god, and this point hinges on the absolutes mentioned in the bible.  By ‘absolutes’ I mean those commandments that are conceived of as unalterable by those who follow the bible in an orthodox fashion, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that such laws are antiquated and, while potentially relevant to certain past historical contexts, are no longer appropriate in the time in which we live.

First and foremost among these laws, in my opinion, is the law against homosexuality.  It is stated very bluntly in the bible that “A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination*, they will surely die, their blood is upon them” (Lev. 20:13).  While this is undoubtedly a consequence of growing up in the social context in which I have, I feel very strongly that such a law is immoral and unjustifiable on any grounds, especially absolutist grounds, such as ‘god said so, and everything god says is right (by definition).’  The problem I have with this defense, however, is that this conception of god is very hard to imagine as a coherent one.  If whatever god says is right (and good) by definition, many questions follow: why would such a god have given us intuition at all, why not just rely on god’s written word?  Plato’s question, what makes an action good, that god commanded it, or that it was independently good, which suggests that god is beholden to a higher law?  What about laws that have been changed in the face of changing times, e.g. public stoning?  This account is hardly adequate to give a full understanding of the problems with the orthodox response saying that homosexuality is wrong because god commanded it to be wrong, but I hope that it points in the direction that I am aiming at, namely that absolutist reasoning must be examined repeatedly, as claims to an absolute timeless set of truths are very dubious (a claim that, itself, sounds absolute and is therefore in need of much independent justification).

Ultimately, I do not believe that argument about the existence of god is a coherent notion.  Many people have spent their lives devoted to finding a satisfactory answer to this question (some probably considered it a fruitful use of their life), but history is pretty clear on this matter: humans will not be able to come to an answer that will convince everyone.  That is why I am agnostic about the existence of god.  However, if one wishes to posit a god with a clearly delineated set of characteristics, then I think a reasoned argument can progress.  Of course, given that there is no philosopher of note in the Western tradition who has had anything but scorn for the idea of the existence of the biblical notion of god, it really is no wonder that I hold the beliefs that I do.  Nevertheless, as someone who plans on continuing to make Judaism a central aspect of my life, and as someone who simply feels that it is imperative to spend time thinking about questions such as these, having a clear opinion on the matter (which does not exclude the possibility of it changing over time) is important.

I hope that it goes without saying that many people have written encyclopedic books on this topic, and that this is truly an extremely narrow first pass at it.  I have not mentioned: faith, whether religious belief is worth it despite these claims, the interplay between science and religion, etc.

*While  תועבה is commonly translated as ‘abomination’ there are problems with that translation.  Regardless of the accuracy of the translation, though, the attitude that Judaism has taken towards homosexuals for most of its history, in most denominations, is proof enough.

And for further analysis, see this blog post.

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2 thoughts on “The Big Questions: Do You Believe In God?

  1. I very much enjoy your posts here, and had to add my own piece to your deductions regarding the absolutism of god in terms of right and wrong. The question I pose to those who argue that morality is based on the Christian or Judaic god, are created by that god, and therefore are absolute as defined by god, is this: If you were put in the position of Abraham, would you kill your own child? The juxtaposition of this scenario provides a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you must obey the absolute word of God, with no assumptions that what he commands of you is any less than what he says – i.e. if he tells you to kill someone, you cannot assume or even hope that you are being ‘tested’ as Abraham did not have such assumptions either, but moved without hesitation to obey god’s command. The opposing issue is that, by obeying god’s direct command of you, you must go against god’s absolute moral code established for you. You must kill a person, going against one of the commandments. Finally, a third facet to the dilemma, is that if you obey god, you must still be punished by society, for there is no objective way for you to defend yourself in your actions when your command came to you from god, and presumably, as all god-command stories go, you are the only one he speaks to, likely in your own mind. So who can objectively say you’re not just hearing voices?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Rana – I agree that the struggle Abraham faced during the Akeida (the Hebrew term for the Binding of Isaac) is a perfect test case of any absolutist faith in God’s word. While this, too, deserves its own post and much subsequent discussion, I would briefly point out that Abraham, on another occasion, did feel comfortable questioning God on moral grounds, when he asked God “shall not the God of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25) referring to the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah.

    What is your intuition in this case? And, if such an extreme case is not one in which faith can be followed, are there cases in which you think that faith is an acceptable means by which to live in the world?

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