Why Discussions About God Often Aren't Very Rewarding

| 14 Comments

Yesterday morning I sat down to write a blog entry about why I liked first grade, which was something I mentioned in another recent entry. But I decided that before I did that, I'd check a few of my favorite blogs--and I got sucked into a conversation that made my original blog plans go away.

One of my very favorite Mormon-themed blogs is Main Street Plaza. There's always something interesting going on there.

Right now, for instance, there's a conversation about "god," begun when profxm posted an email he sent to his devout Mormon sister-in-law when she asked him for help with arguments for why God doesn't exist, since she had to provide some for a school assignment and couldn't think of any. (Seriously. She couldn't think of ANY. Talk about a failure of the imagination.)

The arguments profxm offers are great--if you're talking about a quasi-anthropomorphic god with volition and shit. They aren't so great if you're talking about the concept of god that interests me most--one alluded to in this post discussing Karen Armstrong's work, for instance.

I've posted a bunch of comments but a few have been profoundly misunderstood--I was accused of believing in the god of the deists, first of all, when I absolutely don't--actually, I've been accused of "believing" in "god" even though I keep saying I DON'T. I write,

As I said, the “god” I am interested in (I won’t even say I “believe” in it, because I don’t know if I do) doesn’t create anything.

and someone responds

You believe in an undefinable, unknownable, un-understandable (is that a word?) force that influences something (it must influence something, else why call it a force?).

No. I don't "believe" in it, which is why I said I didn't.

Mostly the conversation underscores for me how thoughtless we are about vocabulary. We don't interrogate or reconsider terms. I keep saying I don't "believe" in "god" and I DON'T believe in "god" in the way that I believe on faith a great many things I can't know firsthand (since I don't have the background or means to conduct experiments and observations myself): that black holes exist, that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, or that Bush & Cheney lied about the rationale for going to war in Iraq.

But I'm interested in "god." I don't believe Elizabeth Bennet was a "real person" but I'm interested in her because she has become a real force; she is a real fiction with a real presence in the real world. I have found something beneficial in talking about her effects on the world and on myself. I'm interested in the process by which she was created. I'm interested in what we learn about ourselves when we take her seriously.

Anyway. If you are interested in "god" please read the conversation and tell me what you think, either here or there.

14 Comments

I'm sorry for the trainwreck on Main Street Plaza and my role in it. I don't think that you "have no right" to use the term god, or that your usage is illegitimate.

I was attempting to provide an explanation on why there might've been a disagreement between you and her, but it appears I was ineffective at bridging any gaps.

Folks who beat you up in this way are just dumb... They're so eager to fight, they don't know which way their fists are flying.

On the score of belief, here are my two cents, for what they're worth...

Atheism and fundamentalism both partake of the same fundamental error of reasoning about God. They both assume that our beliefs or our doctrinal formulations must be taken literally, in a scientific rational sense, or they have no meaning. But doing so literally empties religion of its value. Fundamentalism (of whatever stripe -- Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Mormon, Hindu, Lakota -- whatever kind of fundamentalism you choose) is not just wrong, it's sad. It becomes obsessed about proving itself "true" in some rational objective sense (and by extension proving everybody else wrong). It draws us into obsessive navel-gazing, when the whole point of religion is to get our gaze out of our navels and up and around us... Toward brothers and sisters who are suffering and in need of solidarity, toward the earth and all of the creation of which we are a part, and toward the Creator who has given us this incredible gift of life. Doctrines about God cannot be scientific statements about something literally true in the sense that descriptions of gravity or chemical compositions or even theories about the origins of species are true. Doctrines about God are symbols, or markers, or pointers to help us get our souls oriented in the right direction. So to argue about whether God can simultaneously be distinct from the Holy Spirit, while the Holy Spirit pervades everything is pointless, akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a needle...

This is not to say that God is not real... God is absolutely real in some objective sense. The sacred is real. But we can't learn about God, we can't encounter the sacred, through our doctrinal formulations. We can learn about God only in the encounter with God. "Flesh and blood have not revealed it unto thee...."

I enjoyed your discussion of why English is better off for not having an Academie Anglaise.

Hi Andrew--

I'm sorry things got out of hand as well. I've enjoyed your other comments and posts and am sorry things got so contrary between us. Maybe in the future we'll agree something interesting, or else disagree in a more interesting, less contentious way.

Hi John--

Your statement of belief is one I can agree with almost entirely. The flaws in fundamentalism you point to are among the reasons I refuse to say I'm an atheist, even though other people would probably label me that, given that the "god" I am interested in is so, well, symbolic.

And I completely agree with this:

Doctrines about God cannot be scientific statements about something literally true in the sense that descriptions of gravity or chemical compositions or even theories about the origins of species are true. Doctrines about God are symbols, or markers, or pointers to help us get our souls oriented in the right direction.

I tried to present a little of that view in a way that wouldn't be really offensive in a discussion of the values of atheism, and I guess I totally blew it.

"Atheism and fundamentalism both partake of the same fundamental error of reasoning about God. They both assume that our beliefs or our doctrinal formulations must be taken literally, in a scientific rational sense, or they have no meaning."

I would take exception to that point of view regarding atheism. I firmly believe that there are fundamentalist views with regards to atheism, just as those that are religious in nature. There are also views on atheism that are far more moderate.

Examples of just such types of fundamentalist views on atheism can be found in people such as the late Madeline Murray-O'Hare, (who had a whole host of other issues, to be sure.) Richard Dawkins, and others. For these folks, there is no middle ground.

There are people like myself, that consider ourselves atheists in the sense that we don't believe in a literal god. I can recognize that science is a far better barometer for measuring how our world operates, but I can also admit that there are things for which both science and religion have no answer for. I can view science as imperfect, and not take all of it literally. I am also "interested" in god, but from the points of view of mythology and psychology.

There are three quotes from Einstein that I truly love:

"My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."

"Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

"The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking."

And, I would add a fourth:

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us _universe_, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

However, I do agree with you that fundamentalism in any form of religion or science is sad. Going through life with the blinders of fundamentalism is far more limiting than allowing yourself to open up to what the world is truly about, and in turn, discovering things about yourself in the process.

Interesting and important distinctions, Mr. Nighttime. Thanks for providing them. And I do love the statements from Einstein. One of my favorites is something along the lines of "I have merely wanted to know the mind of the old one. The rest is a detail." (Sorry I can't find the original.)

But I have always liked that, and, in a very metaphorical, non-literal way, I also want to know the mind of the old one. It's what I want most, in fact.

I am only interested in saying Merry Christmas and Happy New Year right now Holly! Hope it's a good one!

I think this is the quote you were referring to:

"I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details."

Hi Mr. Nighttime--

Yes, the statement you quote sounds right, and since I was googling for "the old one," that explains why I couldn't find it.

But there is somewhere where Einstein refers to god as "the old one," which I liked, and liked all the more when someone told me it was another translation for the phrase that shows up in the KJV of the Bible as "the ancient of days."

Hi Dale--

All holiday wishes gladly accepted here! Thanks for stopping by, and happy holidays to you too!

You might also like these two quotes from Stephen Hawking:

“All the evidence shows that God was actually quite a gambler, and the universe is a great casino, where dice are thrown, and roulette wheels spin on every occasion” (In answer to Einstein's famous "He does not play dice." quote on God in relation to quantum mechanics/uncertainty principle.)

"When we understand the universe, we will know the mind of God."

I got stranded in the Chicago airport overnight (without internet), and when I finally got to my destination I checked the comments on that post. HOLY SMOKES. It had gone from like 20+ comments to about 70. I read a few, but just couldn't bring myself to read the rest.

But, yes, you were absolutely and unbelievably misunderstood on so many levels.

One of the things I'd planned on writing in that blog post I mentioned (which I don't think I'm going to do anymore because it seems kind of late after that discussion) is the incredible lack of imagination it takes not to be able to dream of something we CAN'T dream of or explain (at least not now).

For the record, I totally understand (at least I think I do) what you were saying. I've tried to say similar things to people before - that IF I were ever to believe in a god, it would be more of a force or an idea than a being - and very rarely do people get what I'm trying to say (which honestly may be because I don't say it well). I thought you were very clear. Sometimes people just don't read very carefully when commenting on blogs.

Hi Mr. Nighttime--

those are pretty great. Are they from "A Brief History of Time"? I bought it but still haven't read it. Looks like it's time to move it further up the list of things to read.

Hi Rebecca--

I'm glad to know that SOMEONE got what I was trying to say. And I agree with you about the lack of imagination. I worked really hard for a while to avoid saying anything comparable to what Andrew's dad said, that "atheists are spiritually lazy." I still wouldn't agree with that categorically, but I would say that the group of atheists I was talking to were intellectually lazy. The only way they're used to thinking about god is as some quasi-person thingy, so they won't even TRY to think of it as something else, even for the sake of conversation? Whatever.

Sorry to hear about your travel woes. I hope you're having a wonderful time now and face no airport nastiness on the way home.

Hm. Fascinating how someone can become so overwrought with reactionary emotion and self-righteous indignation that they miss the difference between an interest and a belief. Like you, I am interested in a great many things, but I believe few things.

"those are pretty great. Are they from "A Brief History of Time"? I bought it but still haven't read it. Looks like it's time to move it further up the list of things to read."

The second quote is, but I am not sure about the first. Do yourself a favor: Get "A Briefer History Of Time." Hawking had to "dumb down" A Brief History Of Time because, try as he may have, it was still pretty out there for all of us mere mortals. ;-) The second version of it, A Briefer History Of Time, is better and explains some of the more abstract concepts clearer, if one can really do that. ;-)

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 22, 2008 10:41 AM.

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