The god proposition is supported not by fact, but by faith. At the end of the day, the final word that the religiously-disposed have is to say that “It is so because I believe it to be so,” before covering their ears. For them, this trumps everything.
This is the hook that caught Descartes when he confronted the issue, and then backed off very quickly. “I think,” he said, “Therefore I am.” This is fine. He is self-aware therefore he is sure he exists. He cannot be entirely sure that he exists as he perceives himself or that anything that is around him is as he perceives it, but he does make a very convincing argument, based on the progression of rational logic, that it is so (and thus takes several hundred pages to confirm what any pragmatist already knows. But that’s an aside.) However, when confronted by the idea of God, God must exist, he says “Because he cannot imagine a world in which he does not.” Oops.
Well, it may have got Descartes out of the sights of the Inquisition,
but it is an argument so feeble that it almost seems as if he meant it in the inverse.
But Descartes illustrates the point very well; God exists because those who believe in him say so. Now that leads us to two possible conclusions; the first is that religiously-inclined people are a bit soft in the head. Clearly, if I say I believe I have a certain amount of money in the bank, that does not actually mean that I do, and if I proceed willy-nilly I may get a nasty shock the next time I get a statement or try to fill up my gas tank. Belief is no proof at all and to say that it is, definitely must bring into question the speaker’s mental capacity. In other words faith is only valid to the person who has it.
The other conclusion is that God has actually been brought into being by the simple fact of being believed in, and at first glance this is certainly a more interesting possibility. However on closer inspection this proposition reveals a glaring weakness; since no-one can genuinely say that they know what is inside another person’s mind, how do we know that we are all believing in the same God? Isn’t it at least possible that we are all worshipping different Gods, since the act of our believing has brought them into being?
If we have to have gods, which I personally am not convinced about, I have no problem with this. Have as many as you like. However, for monotheists this presents another problem, since they are convinced that there is only one God. The question then is “Which one?” and we immediately see the schism that splits the monotheisms into violently squabbling camps reassert itself. The Jews are right because Moses received the word first. No, the Muslims are right because they received in last. No, they didn’t, the Proddies did. And what about the Bah’ai? Or the Mormons?
Well, one might say that since there is only one god, that god must be the same god no matter who is looking. It sounds great but it has two huge flaws. The first is, “How do we know there’s only one god,” and if the only answer is “Because I believe it to be so,” then we’re right back where we started.
In addition, leaving that aside, we then have to deal with the issue of false gods. You may perhaps argue that no such thing exists, but you would be at variance with most monotheists, and again, you would have the issue of proof—how do you know there are no false gods?
This is important because the issue of false gods is central to the understanding of free will in religious terms, certainly as far as the main monotheisms are concerned. If there are no false gods, then you’re free to believe anything you like because it simply doesn’t matter; god is god. Devil-worship is as valid as god-worship, since god is the devil too. Therefore free will is irrelevant; it doesn’t matter whom or what you choose to worship, it’s all the same thing.
Unfortunately for this utopian solution, one of the central claims of all religions is that they are a guide to moral behaviour. They set out to define what is right and what is not right in terms of the interpreted word of god. The trouble is, if all gods are the same, and someone happens to worship one that demands the sacrifice of newborn children, how can that be condemned in moral terms? You’ve just argued that his god is as much god as your god, and his god, he says, tells him he has to eat babies. You think this is ridiculous? What about if his god tells him he has to hack the arms off schoolgirls, or mutilate baby boys’ genitals?
So now, instead of arguing about whose god is actually god, you end up arguing about whose vision of god is true and we are once again right back where we began.
Which gods are true though?
Alas, for monotheisms, there is no way out of this; either there is only one god, and whatever god you say you worship, that is still god, no matter what he demands, in which case the notion of moral accountability has just left the building, or there are indeed false gods, which means the issue is in deciding which are untrue gods and which are true. And if this latter be the case, than the violence and strife between the monotheisms can be justified by arguing that those perpetrating the violence are doing so in the name of the true god, and those who are subjected to it deserve no better, as they are followers of false gods.
Yes well, if you must have a religion, you should choose one that is not predisposed towards such behaviour, and in the case of monotheisms, it is impossible to see how they can avoid it.
Originally posted 2013-07-03 16:53:42.
Also published on Medium.