For all the outcry over individual mental and emotional and sexual autonomy in society, it seems that in finding shoe on the other foot we have discovered steel toes on both. Society largely agrees and vehemently declares that no one should compel another to believe anything they don’t want to. Anyone who uses societal shame to silence, de-platform, or shell any nut with an opinion is only doing what those who went before them have done. Tyrion Lannister, charming imp of the Game of Thrones series, cleverly observed that “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”
Throughout history, men and women have been subjected to gruesome deaths or the very real threat of injury to life or limb for holding their own views and expressing them. Usually, their indictments and punishments came at the hands of some or other clerical bully who truly believed he had God on his side in passing and executing punishments for blasphemy or heresy. The excuse that it must be done “for the children” ought to be a red flag for any critical, free-thinking human.
The pressure to believe in god is all around me. It was in my upbringing, my marriage, the births of my children, my own devotion and faith of over thirty years. It’s programmed into my firmware and there don’t seem to be any updates beyond the age of twenty-five. About as far as I am able to take it is to reason that the belief is unfounded by any standard to which I hold any other aspect of my life. Martin Amis observed, “What one doesn’t learn from one’s parents one never learns, or learns awkwardly.” This must include the negation that whatever we learn from our parents we never unlearn or unlearn awkwardly.
I don’t exactly find myself yearning or pining for a relationship with god, but sometimes I want to believe that there is a being in control of the chaos. A creature that can really see the end from the beginning and who, with our ability to choose, allows the course of human events to play out to their natural conclusion. But that’s the extent of it. I can’t bring myself to believe in any of the gods postulated by any monotheism or the other religious traditions as I understand them. Vengeful, jealous, willing to command genocide and infanticide in his name. Eager to subject women to the superstition and sexual whims of men.
That’s not my god! It says right there in the Bible: God is love!
God punishes disbelief to the third and fourth generation. That’s not love.
You just don’t understand him. God can’t hate anyone or anything!
Have you read Proverbs 6? It clearly lists the things that your God “hates.”
Oh! That’s not what it means. He hates bad behavior!
Okay, what about Pslam 11:5? Clearly his hate is directed toward the people who exhibit bad behavior. Wicked is a pretty broad term.
That’s not what it means!
Forgive me while I scratch. I a severe allergy to double-speak.
Sixty-four percent of American’s responded affirmatively to the question, are you convinced god exists. From my experience amongst and as one of the devout, I presume that these same respondents also promote their belief that freedom and morality cannot exist without God. Each tradition has its slippery slopes that follow, but those are easy to ignore if you’ve been programmed to find comfortable in reassuring swaddling of cognitive dissonance. My proprietary, sixteenth-century firmware has been updated, but it really needs to be wiped clean and replaced with twenty-first century, open-source programming. (I do hate to think of a new paradigm as programming at all. Don’t carry the metaphor too far.)
Since the first anthropoid sought to explain the volcano, earthquake, tsunami, plague, crippling defect, or epileptic spasm, they have created gods and devils. Dreadful or benevolent–even some dichotomous combination of both–they have created many gods to fill the gaps of their understanding. Our species’ minds prefer a poor explanation to no explanation at all.
This long-honored the tradition involved man creating a God or gods in whom they could bring themselves to believe. Created in their own image, in other words–though perhaps not in totum. I realize there is a certain arrogance in this idea, a self-delusion against which one’s own faults must be ignored or embraced and rationalized. That is why I must confess, with a strange combination of pride and disgust, that the god I am now capable of conceiving is a deity in which I could believe rather than one in which I feel I must believe.
Such an imaginative undertaking is not that difficult. Most American’s have been exposed to Christianity. We have popular movies with their serious or comical depictions of gods and goddesses. The trick is to reconcile that god with reality in a way that allows that god to be as we all want him to be–loving, concerned with our individual and collective fates, omnipotent without being arrogant or negligent. My god is still derivative of the monotheistic interpretation of deity. It depends in part on the God revealed in the Torah, Bible, Book of Mormon, and Quran–a God we know to be petty, vindictive, demanding of uncritical and unending praise, homophobic, racist, and-on-and-on-and-on.
I don’t believe in the deity I am about to describe and, just to prove that he/she/it is my creation, I have conceived of a god that doesn’t care if I believe in them. That was really the nidus for my conceptualization. If you were truly eternal and all-powerful–not like an Earthly king who can be killed or could lose their power in defeat–would you care about endless praise? Would you care if someone said, “Oh my God!” It’s not even your name! It is a title in one, infantile language! Would you be so hurt if someone defiled a day you decreed as sacred by walking more than the allotted number of steps or buying a meal or going to the laundromat? Would you be so concerned with mandating a “day of rest?” Would inane observances of a single day of the week mean enough to your ego that you would threaten destruction for those who didn’t follow your edicts on it? And that’s just one of the most benign of the commandments!
Speaking of edicts and mandates and commandments: Why would covenants matter to God? Why would people need to make promises, binding themselves to oaths and promises of conformity and obedience to satisfy you? It feels like this eternal dictator of monotheism has an incredibly fragile ego that is idiotically disproportionate to their infinite capacity to comprehend, create, and foresee.
Are you all-powerful? If you are able to make laws simply by decree, why do you rely on a barbaric, human sacrifice to “save” people? Why not demonstrate to your creations the example of forgiving by simply forgiving those who recognize when they have wronged another, made an effort to make things right, and changed not only their behavior but their attitude? When you don’t establish a simple standard of forgiveness but require bronze-age blood-myths to achieve reconciliation with your less-than-the-dust-of-the-Earth creations, you promote the creation and perpetuation of religions from which holy martyrs, honor killings, and blood-atonement are preached as doctrines and praised as worthy of emulation. On top of this inanity, you find that your acolytes in Christianity, for example, adore the blood of their savior and the means by which it came, yet they recoil at the barbarity of rampant blood-sacrifice in other ancient civilizations.
When one defines someone’s god as vindictive, petty, narcissistic, punitive, greedy, or applies any other unseemly adjective to him, the condescending response that person must often be prepared to entertain is, “that’s not the God I’ve come to know.” Well, based on your holy scriptures, what other god could you know? Are not the sacred cannon the final word regarding God? Even you call the extremists in particular sects–including your own–“fundamentalists.” Why? Because they not only preach the verifiable fundamentals, they live according to them!
Once, during a long drive with a colleague who happened to be, broadly speaking, an evangelical Christian, the discussion meandered to my recent shift away from belief in a God or any god. I explained that I could no longer reconcile either intellectually, ethically, or in any other fashion, the fact that god had condoned and even commanded so many horrific things to be done in his name and for his glory. Of course, the Old Testament came to the fore and we settled on the injunctions to slay entire civilizations such as the Amalekites for the crime of, as Mel Gibson’s character said in the movie Maverick regarding the Native Americans, “being on our land before we got here.” My colleague, without any hint of remorse, irony, or even difficulty in saying it, defended the act as his God showing his love for his chosen people by keeping his promises to them. The God he knows is a promise keeper which is far more important that a respecter of life, as innocent as it may seem to me. To ancient Israel, the Amalekites were aggressors for living on a certain real estate that, as Christopher Hitchens ironically said regarding this territorial gift from an omniscient creator, is the only place in the Middle East with no oil.
So, what God could I believe in? I could believe in a monotheistic God who has allowed the holy scriptures to be written just as they are. Not to see if we will abide by them in every detail, but to see if our innate sense of solidarity, irony, and humanity can overcome the siren song of clerical authority. Are we courageous enough to speak out against slavery despite scriptural prescriptions of how to do it? Will we refuse to stone the adulterer or ostracize the homosexual? Mine would be a being that allows suffering but does not condone or command it. This deity would permit those that profess to speak for him to teach hideous, dangerous doctrines though he would not inspire them. My God, if he has allowed all of this wickedness and suffering, does so with pain and anguish so that he can see if we will rise above it. If we will subject our confusion and social desire to conform to our own humanity. My God does not need to be praised. I ask again: why would an eternal, all-powerful being need the praise of any mean mortal? What could our adoration give to him that he would make it a commandment that includes a penalty consisting of eternal torture as the punishment for the failure to obey?
In a more recent conversation, I expressed to my wife that, if nothing else were to change in the divinely allowed/proclaimed, revelatory database, I could believe in a certain type of God. After outlining what I have thus far written, she agreed with me. This is indeed the God in which she believes. I was taken aback by her concession for I have heard her justify Noah’s ark, Nephi decapitating Laban, and bears devouring rowdy, if rude, children. And I have heard her justify these divinely condoned happenings to our children. How can she claim to believe in the God I have just described? Were she to say that she had come to know Hitler, Stalin, or any other tyrant as a loving, caring, personal father-figure, I don’t think I could have been more surprised. It is as if, after studying chemistry first-hand, and teaching it to others, she were to say, “Sodium and chloride ions together make sugar.” The salt of her convictions would seem to have lost its savor.
It is a case of Stockholm syndrome? Defending the indefensible because of fear of offending and enticing to violence? Or even a misplaced affection for one’s tormentor? Or is it out of a duty to make palatable for consumption rather unsavory ideas that keep people like me from joining–or, rather, rejoining–the feast?
In Mormonism, one of their interesting doctrines revolves around punishment. In The Book of Mormon, Alma 42, instruction is given that God does not punish people, rather, they bring the punishments upon themselves. “There is a law given, and a punishment affixed…and the law inflicteth the punishment.” The tricky position is to ask the believing Mormon if they believe their God to be omnipotent. If they even know the definition of the word and do not attempt some sophistry in redefining it on the spot, some will claim that, in fact, their God is not all-powerful for he is bound by eternal laws. Their obsequious deference to the Book of Mormon does have its limits, but any doctrine–including polygamy, racist ideologies, and capital punishment for heresy–is not utterly dismissed, only deferred until the hereafter.
Many atheists, when asked what they will do if, upon death, they find themselves before the God of the Jews or Christians or Islam. (It seems only monotheists really care to challenge with this scenario.) When asked how he would respond to a God that asked him why he didn’t believe in Him, Bertrand Russell famously replied that the God had not provided enough evidence for himself. Other, more contemporary critics of religion like Dawkins and Hitchens have said that if God is really as loving and understanding as Christians make him out to be, they aren’t afraid to meet Him because they have lived their lives with the reason and moral integrity that this god would have created them with. They challenge the concept of a god of love by expecting that god to live up to his billing. A god that would not be impressed with people who espouse belief only to avoid punishment. That he would look at your life and judge you according to who you became despite the pressures of religions organized around barbaric, primitive writings of credulous peasants who knew nothing of germ theory, plate tectonics, astronomy, physics, biochemistry, or meteorology.
These same men and others have said that they would not wish to go to the heaven presented in the Christian, Jewish, or Islamic tradition. An eternity of praising the god of easily bruised ego.
So, here I am, doing what generations before and after me have and will do: creating a god in whom I could believe. And as much as he/she/it is beholden to the traditions of the past while being a reformation from them, I still cannot bring myself to believe. But, hey, my god doesn’t care about that. He appreciates my assimilation of new science and philosophy. I’m not a “good” person, but I don’t need to be. A “good” person in Mormonism, for example, used to support segregation and racism under prophetic teaching. They used to alienate and attempt to therapeutically heal gay people. They made women servile to men. They did all of these things, claiming the moral high ground…until they didn’t. My god isn’t impressed with this and, being created in his image, neither am I.