Thursday, March 10, 2005

Getting down to brass tacks

"God" is a somewhat unusual word. Most nouns have what I would call a non-problematic referrent. If I refer to a horse, a cloud, a house or a banana, very few people are going to give me an argument about what those words really mean. Of course most words can have their meaning extended by analogy or metaphor, for example we might say that a running back is a "real horse," but that doesn't mean we have any confusion about what species Corey Dillon belongs to. We might argue about whether a particular structure is good enough to serve as a house, but we aren't disagreeing about what a house is, just our standards for habitability.

God is a horse of a different color. Most people say they believe in God, but they obviously aren't all talking about the same thing. Wikipedia has a straightforward, fair and balanced entry which begins, " God is one of many terms used to describe a perfect, supreme being, generally believed to be the ruler or the creator of, and/or immanent within, the universe ." We can see immediately that this definition excludes many (imagined) entities that are called God. The Greek and Roman Gods, for example, were neither perfect, nor creators nor rulers of the universe. They were more powerful than humans, but they all had their limitations and their ethics were often questionable, at best.

The major religions nowadays however tend to believe in something that more or less fits the Wikipedia definition but let's face it, it's kind of vague. Most people who call themselves believers in God insist on a great deal more specificity. For example, they may insist that God demands that we call a guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago his "son," and if we don't, he will torture us for all eternity after we die. They may insist that God doesn't want us to eat pork, or he hates homosexuals, or he loves everybody even if they are sinners, or he doesn't care what we do only that we repent. He's in favor of invading Iraq or he's against it. He wrote the Bible, he gave the Koran to Mohammed, he took human form as Jesus or Krishna or Quetzalcoatl, he's actually female or has no gender, he created the universe 6,000 years ago or yeah, it really is 13.5 billion years old but it was still his idea in the first place.

Of course, no matter what out of the above you believe or repudiate, if you believe that there is a perfect, supreme being who created and rules the universe, you have a problem, because from our point of view at least, the universe sure as hell ain't perfect. It's also obvious that whatever God may want us to do or not do, and you can pick 2 from column A and 3 from column B if you want to, the good go unrewarded and the wicked go unpunished. As a matter of fact, the undisputable empirical observation is that the universe is utterly indifferent to the fate of humans, individually or collectively. Many people pray, but it is apparent that prayers are answered, or not, at random. And come to think of it, there are frequently many people praying for contradictory outcomes. If God picks favorites in these situations, it isn't evident that he has any specific criteria.

So I have a couple of questions for all the believers out there:

  1. What is your definition of God? When you say you believe in God, what do you mean?
  2. How do you know what God wants of you? How did you come to make your particular choices from the menu?
  3. How is it that some believers in God came to make the right choices about what God is and what he/she wants, and some didn't?
  4. If God talks to you and tells you what to think, how come he appears to be telling other people something else?
  5. If God doesn't talk to you, but you depend on other people to tell you what God wants of you, why do you choose to believe those people and not others?
  6. Why, if God is the supreme ruler of the universe and he has particular ideas about what's right and what's wrong, does he not enforce his will?

Actually, I can think of a whole bunch more. But those will do for starters.