Religion and Spirituality

The God Question

This post was originally published in January 2016. It was re-uploaded in October 2018 as part of the archive restoration project. My follow-up post on the subject is posted here

I read a sentence a few years ago that changed my life. It was in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God, and it said, “When people run up against something inexplicable, transcendent, and, most of all, ineffable, they often call it ‘God,’ as if that were some sort of explanation.”

That sung true through every bit of my being, and I hated it because I knew it was true, and that it went against everything I’d believed and defended and taught. I kept stubbornly defending “God,” but my theism quickly washed away. I realized that whatever I’d been praying to, learning about, hearing from, and interacting with, couldn’t be described as “God” because that word is overused and it fails to explain anything.

Defining “God” is a ridiculous task and worthless endeavor. The word has come to mean thousands of things to thousands of subgroups of people. Why would I want to seek out a universal definition for that? There isn’t one. I’m not out to please billions of people and find a definition that satisfies them all anyway.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore. The idea of a deity is kind of small compared to what I’ve seen and experienced on planes that are best described as metaphysical. Religion is not necessarily a bad thing, but one of its fundamental influences on human history is that it has oversimplified our ability to describe common experiences. Is “God” a ghost of parental care that we reach out for, whether it exists or not, in times of fear? Is “God” the explanation that fills in the gaps of why physical reality manifests as it does?

Maybe people who believe in god aren’t delusional. Maybe they’re just using a word that they were taught, to describe something that the word does a really poor job of describing. Maybe the word “god” was diluted over time, to the point that it doesn’t have common meaning anymore. It’s become a term that people use to gain power and to hurt others, and it hardly matters whether their intentions are sincere or malignant.

“What is God?” Isn’t a question I bother trying to answer. I’m okay with far more specific questions, though, like “What is beyond what humans experience with our senses?” and “What is dark matter?” and “What is the universe?” These are answerable because they’re not about trying to define a word that already exists. They’re about finding words for what has not yet been described.

To start with the word “God” is backwards and counterproductive. A logical syllogism uses the premises to define the conclusion, but to try and define a word as big as “God” is to look at the conclusion that millions of people have used, and try to see their reasoning for it. I don’t think everyone used the exact same logical premises; people are too lazy and irrational for that. I’d much rather build up my premises than work down from the assumption of the existence of a being with omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.

As soon as I recognized that I was working backward from an assumed conclusion and looking for the premises, I couldn’t do it ever again.

Part of the task of openness was to admit that to label my connections as “God” was getting in my way. So these days I don’t identify as Christian or with any other religion, I don’t say I believe in God, but I know there’s something out there, perhaps many things. I’m done with describing heaven and hell, as I explained in my series about the afterlife. I’m just remaining open.