Monday, September 2, 2013

THE USES OF GOD


When my father lay dying in a Florida hospital, he asked me whether there was God and an afterlife. I was in a quandary. If I said yes, I would have betrayed my sworn conviction. (Perhaps I should have anyway.) But I certainly didn’t want to say no. I chose a middle way: I don’t know. Let the poor man have his bit of terminal hope.

Even though he is a great universal panacea, I still find it surprising how many intellectuals believe in God and his (and their) Heaven, which I view as a survival of the superstitions of medieval Christianity. Even an intellectual like Bill Buckley wrote to me that he couldn’t live on without his firm belief in being reunited with his dead wife in Heaven. I wish I could believe in that happy supraterrestrial reunion.

Belief in God among educated persons today strikes me as peculiar indeed. In the Middle Ages one could entertain such a belief, though even as early as circa 200 A.D. the Christian bishop Tertullian said “Credo quia absurdum,” I believe because it is absurd. Faith, in my estimation, is the one thing one cannot take on faith.

How can one honestly believe in a God who is different in every religion, if not every single believer? Saint Nicholas at least has been recently disenfranchised, little Virginia and her mentor notwithstanding. Alexander Pope wrote, “An honest man’s God’s noblest work of art,” which Oscar Wilde very persuasively reversed, “An honest God’s man’s noblest work of art.” I can even be touched by the humble belief of the French poet Francis Jammes in “the God of the poor, the simple God.” Yet even that was well before the Holocaust.

To be sure, there had been Torquemada and the Holy Inquisition and several varieties of genocide. But after the Six Million, how can anyone take the notion of God seriously? And even that is not all. Medieval folk could pretty much believe in a Heaven above and a Hell below. But we, with modern astronomy, space travel, geology, how can we? Is there perhaps a black hole in the universe where Paradise is hiding? Nietzsche’s God is dead; mine was stillborn.

“God” in fact has become a favorite phrase component, a self-serving battle cry for all the nations “under God.” It is what politicians invoke as part of their patriotic platform: “One nation under God,” “In God we trust,” “For God and country” are remunerative slogans on banners, coins of the realm, in demagogic sales pitches and national anthems.  It is even a word devalued by common usage in “God knows,” “Dear God,” “My God,” “God grant,” “Goddamned,” “Godawful,” “Godforsaken” and the rest. It is no wonder—although it should be—that the related Bible oath still has legal standing.

Granted even the unlikely scenario that God should become outmoded, Christians would still have their Savior, the Muslims their Prophet, and the Jews their Moses, though, to Jewish credit, the latter is invoked far less than the other two. In this respect, the ancient Greeks and Romans should be commended for having had the most entertaining myths, and the gods closest to Wilde’s honest God. A little adultery by Zeus and some mischief by Aphrodite are far more forgivable than a jihad.

All right, let’s look closer. God is credited with the creation of the universe. But surely a god who knew what he was doing would not be guilty of such disparities, such inconsistency, such favoritism. Why does one planet get several moons, while another must make do with one? Why does one planet have people, plants and animals, which no other one has? Why bother creating stars that become extinct? Why are some earthly regions too hot, others too cold?

True, there is something miraculous about the good things humanity has achieved, disregarding for the nonce the bad ones. Even something astonishing about the existence of mankind in the first place. There remains the seemingly unanswerable question: why should there be something rather than nothing? About the development from the atoms upward—or sideways—already Lucretius had creditable answers. But not even he could answer the initial, basic question that will apparently forever defy us to answer.

Deism of old and Unitarianism more recently have come up with tolerable religions—a good word be said too for the Quakers. But the fundamental question remains. My father, with whom this essay began, believed in the quasi-divinity of Nature. Very nice as such things go, but still not an answer. Saint Paul preached an Unknown God, but that was merely a proselytizing subterfuge. Up his sleeve, he had the biblical one.

None of this should discourage atheism. Strictly speaking, agnosticism would be more logical, except for its smelling of a craven compromise. Nonbelievers too must have a creed, especially in their fight against religious excesses. A banner with “We Don’t Know” on it would not stir anyone to action. We have to fight the obvious wrongs of religion: the suicide bombers, the jihads and intifadas, the seemingly ineradicable anti-Semitism. And all the wars fought in the name of religion, which is to say most of them.  But we must be against the less obvious conflicts too. There are Shiites and Sunnis of one kind or another in all of us.

Some successes there have been even without atheist support. The two Irelands seem to manage to coexist more or less peacefully, although future clashes are not inconceivable. French Canada may secede from the English one presumably without bloodshed. Look, however, at the messes in Africa and Asia. Colonialsim has gone, but wasn’t it at least marginally preferable to what has replaced it?

There are those who believe that the moral precepts and restraints of religion keep some order in the word. That without religion, wholesale anarchy and mayhem would become unbiquitous. Yet Nietzsche called Christianity the one great curse, and so it may be. Certainly some of the world’s most inviting and rousing churches are in Harlem, but how much of an Earthly Paradise have they elicited? Are the Tea Party’s born-again Christians making a better world? I doubt it.

Bernard Shaw wittily observed that the problem with Christianity was that it has never been put into practice. Are then two millennia insufficient time? I quote the final words of his Saint Joan, though perhaps in a somewhat different sense from hers: “How long, O Lord, how long?”

19 comments:

  1. This post is beyond ridiculous. At no point do you actually demonstrate that God does not exist, or even try to offer an argument in favor of atheism. I was offended until I read your point about God showing favoritism to planets, after which my state of moral outrage gave way to intense bemusement (do you think our planet sees a psychiatrist because of an inferiority complex?) As for the Holocaust: it is arrogant to assume we limited humans could ever fully understand the mind of an infinite and transcendent Being. Don't forget that the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle came to believe in God through pure reason, and that various great intellectuals and scientists such as Newton, Einstein, and Gödel believed in God as well. I hope that one day you might come to see the light, and pray that you will.

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    1. Jeffrey Cash,

      I'm afraid your post is ridiculous.

      I don't really think the question is very clear. The term "God" does not refer to a specific thing. It refers to a wide variety of concepts/entities, and the answer to the question could (and should) be different for different referents.

      For example, let's say for the sake of argument that the question is "What would convince me of the existence of the God of Abraham?"

      My answer is 'nothing'. There is no evidence that could possibly convince me of the existence of such a being, because there is no evidence that can possibly constitute justification for the claim that such a being exists. The very nature of the being in question is such that its existence would violate the set of assumptions I need to be able to make in order for any sort of empirical evidence to support any claim.

      Consider this: The claim is that a being exists which, among other things, has the ability to alter at will any evidence that I can possibly observe. It also has the ability to alter my own perceptions of the world in any way it wishes, and even to alter my own memories of past observations.

      How then, could I possibly consider any evidence I observe to be reliable evidence concerning the nature of that being?

      The moment I accept that any being or beings with such capabilities exists, I forfeit the ability to say anything further about it/them. Maybe it's Yahweh. Maybe I'm a computer simulation and somebody in the real world is manipulating my experiences. Maybe aliens with technology I can't even begin to imagine are manipulating me. Maybe I have a brain tumor that is causing severe audio-visual hallucinations. Regardless, I clearly cannot draw any conclusions about the nature of whatever phenomena are responsible for the "evidence" in question.

      Of course, this particular response does not apply to all conceptions of God, but it applies to a lot of them. For other conceptions of God, my response would be different.

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    2. What a daffy response. First of all God only denotes one thing, but it denotes one thing for different people (different groups of people to be exact). But then again so do the words justice, good, and evil.
      Secondly, even to admit that God possibly exists is to affirm you cannot know whether any of your sensory experience is true. You would have to some how prove that God's existence is impossible. But then, even if you did, you still would be left with the same problem: how do you know your sensory experience is true? You could just be a brain in a vat that is sent electrical signals to deceive your brain that you are experiencing whatever your currently experiencing. Faith in God, contrary to your assumption, would actually make life easier in this regard, since most Christians believe that God made us in His image, and therefore we should expect that our cognitive faculties are probably pretty accurate.

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  2. As a former atheist, I understand where you are coming from. As a Christian (and hopefully still intelligent person) I can tell you that there is a difference between religin, which may or may not actually have anything to do with God, and knowing God himself. Until he is a reality, your perception of him is guided by your own opinion, desires and intelligence or your experience with or observing other people. I do believe that if you seek him, you will find him. Best.

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    1. Religin doesn't have anything to do with god or anything else.it's not even a word!

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  3. Mr. Simon started out smart,
    And went from strength to strength---
    He chose his parents wisely which
    Served him well his whole life's length---

    For those of us not so lucky we've God,
    Which strikes the well-favored as exceedingly odd.

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  4. I empathize with Mr. Simon. I have never been a believer. The reasons are simple: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There are people who will try to tell you that whether or not a religion is true is the least interesting thing you can ask about it. This is not true; for me it is THE question. When I was a kid, a priest once placated me with the story of St. Anselm, who said, "I believe so that I may understand." 20 years late, I realize that it's easy to understand something if you've already decided that you believe it; you just look for the evidence that confirms your belief and ignore the rest. If something really existed, it would be there whether you believe in it or not.

    If a billion Muslims can be wrong, so can a billion Christians. No man on earth knows what put us here, what happens when we die, or has a connection to a personal God more than any other. We do not need the supernatural to explain anything. As for morality, well, if one were to somehow magically suck all the atheists out of the world, we would lose 93% of the academy of sciences, and less than 1% of the prison population. Religion doesn't make people moral; it just makes them religious.

    Of course, it's no good trying to explain this to a believer. They gave (what they think, at least) is their whole life to the cause, and damned if they're going back on it now.

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    1. David Brand wrote:

      "If something really existed, it would be there whether you believe in it or not."

      This pertains to things, like rocks and chairs. But the idea is that God is not a thing, like a rock or a chair. So "existence" is not so simple a concept.

      "We do not need the supernatural to explain anything."

      Nothing else adequately explains love, will, curiosity, or goodness -- or evil; though "the supernatural" will also fail if it's conceived in natural terms (a temptation seductive to both literalist theists and literalist atheists).

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    2. If God is not a thing, then we have no other choice than to say he's a non-thing, like the Tooth Fairy. Thanks for underscoring my premise that God does not exist.

      There are many adequate explanations for love etc., but the least adequate, and least satisfying, is saying, "Because God did it." Much like the parental "Because I told you so," it tells us nothing.

      " "the supernatural" will also fail if it's conceived in natural terms (a temptation seductive to both literalist theists and literalist atheists). "

      Not believing in the supernatural wouldn't cause it to fail. If I created some magic fairy men of my own, I'm sure I would get along fine with my plans whether they believed in me or not. The Tooth Fairy didn't leave money under my pillow the last time I lost a tooth because I didn't believe in her. She didn't leave money because she doesn't exist.

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    3. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/The_Dragon_in_My_Garage

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  5. “I can’t believe in a God susceptible to prayer. I can’t believe that whatever force it is that keeps the spheres revolving in the heavens is going to stop to give me a bicycle with three speeds. But if God is the unifying factor, if God is the cell within the cell, the universe that encompasses the universe, the cause behind the cause, and if prayer were a way in which you aligned your body with the forces that flow through the universe, then I would accept prayer, and I would accept the idea of a God.” -- Quentin Crisp

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  6. "You see, no one's going to help you Bubby, because there isn't anybody out there to do it. No one. We're all just complicated arrangements of atoms and subatomic particles -- we don't live. But our atoms do move about in such a way as to give us identity and consciousness. We don't die; our atoms just rearrange themselves. There is no God. There can be no God; it's ridiculous to think in terms of a superior being. An inferior being, maybe, because we, we who don't even exist, we arrange our lives with more order and harmony than God ever arranged the earth. We measure; we plot; we create wonderful new things. We are the architects of our own existence. What a lunatic concept to bow down before a God who slaughters millions of innocent children, slowly and agonizingly starves them to death, beats them, tortures them, rejects them. What folly to even think that we should not insult such a God, damn him, think him out of existence. It is our duty to think God out of existence. It is our duty to insult him. F--k you, God! Strike me down if you dare, you tyrant, you non-existent fraud! It is the duty of all human beings to think God out of existence. Then we have a future. Because then -- and only then -- do we take full responsibility for who we are. And that's what you must do, Bubby: think God out of existence; take responsibility for who you are." -- speech of 'The Scientist' in the 1993 Australian film 'Bad Boy Bubby'

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  7. "Bernard Shaw wittily observed that the problem with Christianity was that it has never been put into practice."

    He was wrong. It was often put into practice, but those who did ended up dead. Dead people don't make history.
    And today, it's being put into practice by secular Westerners who are into universalism, open borders, (white)guilt conscience, disarming the populace(so that people must turn the other cheek against thugs), deification of MLK, socialized medicine, nanny-state-ism that supposedly favors the 'meek'.

    As a result, the West will turn lazy and dependent. And Europe will be overrun with Africans, Asians(mostly from Asia and Pakistan), and Muslims. Over 50% of children being born in Paris today are non-white.
    This is what happens when Christian ethos are institutionalized into practice by a secular regime.
    Christianity was much better when it was kept inside the Church while worldly matters were handled by tough ruthless warrior-nationalists.

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    1. C. S. Lewis observed that we've all been inoculated with such a mild strain of Christianity that we're now allergic to the real thing.

      As for Mr Simon's mention of the Holocaust as proof of something or other, which Holocaust does he mean? Stalin's against Ukraine which obliterated 6 million in less than three years? The Rwandan genocide? The 100 millions (or more - no one really knows) slaughtered during Islam's long and ALWAYS bloody conquests? The 65 millions killed off in China in just the 20th century? Cambodia? North Korea?

      The genius of Judaism's moral code combined with Greek philosophy and Rome's odd but brilliant governance which permitted it to rule effectively across a broad Reach. All this culminated in the conversion of Charlemagne which literally changed the world.

      Those four threads (each necessary-but-not-sufficient in itself) when twined together created a phenomenon far beyond the mere sum of the parts. There was not to be anything more phenomenal than that beginning until men who were products of that twining came together to split the atom.

      During all that time, our ancestors were the lucky ones who escaped the killing fields of Islam. Certainly the slaughter continued uninterrupted over 1,400 years. We made various ineffectual attempts to stop it, but mostly we looked away, hoping to evade those scimitars.

      Now, having split the atom, we've long since begun to increase the speed at which we're unraveling that cultural thread that has served us so well... It may be that our descendants will not have the choice Mr. Simon made - i.e., to refuse what looks like a burden.

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  8. "Belief in God among educated persons today strikes me as peculiar indeed."

    Actually, it makes perfect sense. Of course, most educated people who believe in God don't do so in the literal manner of people in the Middle Ages.

    People want a sense of balance in life. Today's world is all about change, science, technology, numbers, data, fashions that come and go, aggrandizement of man as mover and shaker of all things, supreme narcissism centered around celebrity culture, hedonism, and etc.
    So, some people want some kind of balance, and they seek it in God, gods, spirituality, Eastern Mysticism, or whatever. It's like the film KOYAANISQATSI which contrasts the 'permanent' harmonies of nature with the here-today-gone-tomorrow pace of modern life. We are all dependent and addicted to modernity, and there is much to recommend it from a purely material and sensual point of view, but sometimes, we wanna feel connected to the permanent, the eternal, the timeless, the natural, the harmonic. And modern people find it in the NOTION of God, gods, spirituality, and etc... without truly literally believing in that stuff.

    It's like after pigging out on greasy and sugary stuff, you might want something like fresh water and something organic like carrots and lettuce to chew on.
    Why did so many hippies turn to Jesus in the early 70s? After all the orgies and debaucheries and drugs, they wanted something simple to hang onto. The human mind seeks equilibrium and spirituality serves that psychological need.
    It's like after too much Hollywood movie watching and too much rock music listening, we want something like an 'art film' or classical music.

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  9. "How can one honestly believe in a God who is different in every religion, if not every single believer?"

    Same reason we believe in art though it's different in every culture.

    Same reason we believe in life though it has millions of manifestations.

    Same reason we believe in the concept of 'truth', though every person has his or her truth.

    Same reason we believe in beauty, though what is beautiful to a man with a fetish for hook-noses may not be beautiful to John Simon.

    Same reason we believe in the notion of a 'masterpiece', though what Simon considers a masterpiece may be reviled by other critics and vice versa.

    'God' or 'gods' are all those things and more. It is the ultimate concept of power, truth, beauty, destiny, and etc.
    Just as life evolved from the simplest micro-organism to so many forms of complex life, religion began as a simple idea and evolved into so many traditions. Long live the difference.

    It's like what Einstein showed of energy and matter. All energy and all matter are really of the same essence at their deepest root, but in the world we know and live in, there are so many kinds of matter and so many kinds of energy.

    So, the duality of 'God' is that 'He' is both the same and different everywhere. At the deepest core, all forms of spirituality have something in common but their manifestations vary according to time, place, culture, and individuality.

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  10. Wilde said that Man can believe in the impossible, but not in the improbable. God simply isn't probable to me. To many other people, however, He is impossible.

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