Saturday, 7 February 2015

An Atheist Trying To Think About God

Radical Rodent left a great comment last night and I found myself writing a response this morning which began with a couple of lines and then ran to a page and a half. If you're not interested in vague theological rambling, then I've also drawn a slightly less profound cartoon for today which you can see below. If you enjoy theological rambling, then excuse what follows for being heavy on the rambling and light on the learning. Though I largely agreed with what she'd said, I didn't know how much I agreed. I've never really tried to consciously write about my atheism, God or my sense of theology in a coherent way. This is probably my first attempt to do just that. The result is that I think I agreed with what Radical Rodent said about God but that's dependent on what we think of when we talk about God.

First of all, I think we'd probably agree that there's a difference between religion and theology. Religion is the localised interpretations of the big questions. There are various religions, each with a claim to being the 'one true religion' based on its age and number of followers. There are other religions which are unpopular, crazy or even parody. What this should tell us is that the human mind has a great capacity for creating myths. In a sense, it's what we're very good at. It's extremely easy for the brain to create something that quickly becomes too complex for our understanding. For example, we need only thing of an extremely large number. It's impossible to exactly comprehend what 3,383,382,383,942 different clowns would look like if they were sitting on each other's shoulders. Even if that were possible, you only have to keep multiplying that number by another big number and the clown could would eventually get too big. Religion is a bit like that. We create something of such logical and lexical complexity that we then spend centuries arguing about the detail when never actually addressing whether the 3,383,382,383,942 different clowns exist.

So, I'm not going to do that because there's nothing I can do to refute all that. It will always come down to an a priori statement that I believe in something that I can't prove. However, I'd qualify that by saying that I certainly don't believe in a God that's a God as presented to use through the human imagination. Here I think I'm agreeing with you. However, I think Stephen Fry might also agree with you. You attack him because you think he hates God because of guilt. I really think that's a small reason for hating God and, besides, I think Fry doesn't hate God. That would presume belief. His question was a hypothetical one and his answer, through small and (perhaps) 'shallow', was merely an on-the-spot answer which we shouldn't turn into something more significant.

All of which comes back down to the question: what God do I believe in? Well, 'God' is a problematic word if we mean a self-conscious entity who lives somehow above/within/around us, observing us and capable of intervening in our business. That 'God' I don't believe exists. However, just because I don't believe in that kind of God, doesn't mean that I don't think that we're without a transcendental authority. Dostoevsky was pithy but he was also wrong when he wrote that 'if God does not exist, everything is permitted'. It's why I'm not convinced by the argument that 'without God there is no sin'. God didn't create sin. Man created sin or, rather, sin was made in us. Sin is part of our psychological makeup in the form of taboos that have existed in our cultures since our earliest ancestors. All cultures have taboos and you don't need a holy text to tell us what we should or should not do.

I believe that the universe is guided by simple laws of nature which, when combined in their multiple millions, produce something that is extremely complex. So complex, indeed, that it begins to resemble what we think of as God. If God is that manyfold expression of simple rules, then I would accept the existence of a 'God'. But that God is not self-conscious or in any way in our image. It is simply the very form of the universe itself which is forever beyond our comprehension. We are simply in awe of its majesty and that, I think, is the only true religious position to take.

It also, I would add, provides a framework by which we can assert a kind of morality. If I understood it more than I do, I'd probably be a fan of some kind of logicism of in which everything from maths to morality is reduced to simple logic. What I tend to believe is that time moves forward and matter has a tendency towards entropy. If the Big Bang was an act of creation and the heat death of the universe one of destruction, then nature has in itself a kind of moral code. Things which tend towards disassembling the universe are bad. Things that maintain or create structure are good. That's pretty much how I view the world around me.

We should be encouraged to create, to retain history, and to be positive towards our fellow human beings. Wars are always bad but sometimes necessary if they save us from greater ruin. Anything that restricts our freedom is bad but, at the same time, certain types of freedom can do us greater harm and we should guard ourselves against them. Compassion is also good because it produces civil society and holds back the forces that would threaten to tear us apart. In all, I think it's not that different to a religious morality but without all the hokum about loaves and fishes and voices in the clouds.

As for the comparison with 'dark matter', I think it's a poor analogy. Dark matter is a hypothesis reached by following a rational process of inquiry. If that rational process should disprove the existence of dark matter or should no evidence be found, the theory dark matter will be thrown away. The existence of God, in the many forms forwarded by the many religions, has been reached through no rational process and no rational process will ever dissuade believers from believing.

That, I guess, is my uneducated and rambling thought about God. It's deep enough for me and anything deeper becomes the subject of elbow gazing: pointless, self-defeating, and, ultimately, a waste of our God-given time.



  1. Ah, young David, you misunderstand; I was not attacking Mr Fry, I was merely presenting my argument against his. To repeat, in different words: I suspect Mr Fry’s proclaimed atheism is to ameliorate his guilt over his private activities – “If there is no God, what I am doing is not a sin, ergo, I’m all right, and can carry on.” Also, where did I intimate that Mr Fry hates God? As you rightly point out, how can he hate God if he does not believe in His existence?

    As for which God do you believe in… Well, the answer is simple: there may be many religions, but there really is only one God. The concept of sin seems to be pretty uniform, though its actual definition has been adjusted to suit various human interpretations. One problem with the “humanist” view is that any “sin” is wide open to human interpretation – many “humanists” appear to advocate murder of anyone who does not agree with them. Yeah, yeah, I know, many other religious people do, too, which is why I do not agree with religion – an discussion that I had with a vicar, to be told that Jesus also did not agree with religion. He had a point.

    You confess yourself uneducated on the subject; this is why I advocate study of the Bible. I do not mean read it cover to cover, but to study it; merely read it, and most of its message will go over your head (it did, mine, anyway; I assume I am not unique). Help will be required, but as you do so, you will be astonished at how relevant it can be to the present. God was not created in Man’s image; Man was created in God’s image. Make of that what you will. The message of Christ is simple: “Follow me, and believe.” The execution of that is a lot, lot harder; oddly, as you try, you will find that you are NOT being more restricted, but gaining a freedom you never knew. Be aware, though, that any helpers you do find are also human, so will be prone to human error.

  2. For Stephen Fry to think as you say, then surely he would subconsciously acknowledging a God which he can then deny simply in order to carry on with what you perceive as his sinning. I don't believe that's the case and I can't really see what guilt he should carry beyond the guilt that many of us carry. I should clarify that and say that I can't look into another person's heart and know their 'sins'. I'm not really all that interested in what Stephen Fry gets up to in his private life. I'm not homosexual but it's doesn't bother me like no form of consensual adult sexuality bothers me unless it's paraded in the street or wiggled in my face. I'm that old fashioned kind of Englishman who believes in decorum, restraint, and just a little bit of torment at being so damn retrained. Beyond that: to each his or her own. From where I'm sitting, Fry appears a lot more wholesome than many artists I've studied and whose work I've enjoyed. There are *many* artists who deal with a (particularly) Catholic sense of sin and deservedly so since they were often randy little buggers who never knew when to keep their pants on.
    As for not knowing much about the Bible: you have to understand my character. I'm deeply working class and feel so damn guilty for reading, writing, and studying that I demean my learning at every opportunity. I say that about everything I do. The truth is: I've always been interested in religion. I've mentioned before that one of my absolutely favourite books is 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. I've probably read more Christian writers than most professed religious people. I spent ten years studying religious poetry and religious arguments as part of my Ph.D., so, when I say I don't really understand the arguments, I'm probably being disingenuous. I've read more about original sin and predestination than is probably good for a man. That said: there's nothing I've ever read in the Bible or by the various Church authorities which has led me to change my opinion. Religion is no different that most of the myths that we need to live, just one of the more fascinating. Read as a myth, it makes sense to the development of our culture and world civilization. Many Christian values are worth retaining and the Gospels do teach valuable lessons. It's only when they're read as a spiritual manifesto sent to us by a divine hand that they begin to make no sense. Of course, I say all that and believe that nobody has the right to decry another person's religion so long as the pitchforks are kept in the shed and those religious views aren't imposed on another person. Religion is one of life's great paradoxes. It can be helpful to believe so long as you can also recognise that you believe in something that's essentially a lie. I would love their to be a heaven and afterlife and such a thing as the immortality of the soul. However, as good as all that sounds, none of it is as believable as even the most rudimentary science textbook.

    PS. Young David... Ah, I wish that were still the case. ;)

  3. I certainly agree with you on letting others live their lives as they wish. I do not consider myself one of the pursed-lipped types, tut-tutting at every perceived misdemeanour, but do get a bit annoyed when it is constantly being shoved into my face (metaphorically speaking, of course; my reactions should it be an actuality might result in medical treatment for someone). The days of the restrained English person are not truly gone, but they are suffering some setbacks; the only way we can help, ironically, is to continue to be restrained. I feel sadness for the children of today, they seem to have any innocence they may have had eagerly removed – often in school, if tales of sex-education (including details of homosexuality) to six-year-olds are to be believed – by somewhat suspiciously over-enthusiastic adults.

    Interesting to see you so well-read, theologically; sad to see you labelling yourself in such a way as to define your own limitations. There really is no such thing as “class”; that is just a concept created by people who wish to benefit from the divisions (does the idea ring any bells?). I like to think of myself as a class of my own, thus have no such constrictions. Anyway, there is obviously little I can do to educate further, though I shall continue learning from you, you whipper-snapper.

  4. LOL. Well, that cheered me up after a day when I just couldn't be bothered to blog. I know I'm not the only one who feels that way about English reserve but good to know it's not completely isolated to myself and a few people I know. I've written before (a few times) about the pornographication of our culture and that's what I find the most depressing. Years ago people used to bore each other with holiday photos. These days, it's tales from their sordid little dungeons.

    I never believed in class but the older I get, the more certain I am that it exists and it making a return. I like my accent but people treat me like I'm an idiot because of it. Class is also something deep in my being, where I was taught from an early age that learning was the thing you had to get a good job. Arts were not encouraged. It sort of explains this blog, I guess. The would-be 'artist' struggling to write and draw but stuck teaching himself computer programming (yet again) simply in order to earn some money. :(

  5. Sorry to labour the point, but it has just struck me that you may have admired and analysed the architecture in great depth, but you have yet to open yourself up to meet the host of the event.

    To put it another way: you can live your life as you wish, and leave a train-wreck behind you for others to sort out, and, if you are right, any regrets you may have are snuffed out with you; if I am right, however, your regrets will be with you for eternity. The choice is yours.

  6. Kant said in his 'Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals': "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." I don't carry many quotes around in my head but this is one I particularly like. I don't need God to force me to be moral because that kind of morality is meaningless. It is empty. A sham. Mere hypocrisy.

    I guess morality has been the theme in nearly everything I've written. I consciously wrote my spoof letters not as a way of spoofing celebrities but as a way of cheering up strangers. I believe a person can make a difference even if that difference is so small that nobody notices it. It's probably the reason I write this blog. It's not like so much out there which I dislike. In a way, I'm probably the most 'Christian' atheist you could ever hope to meet in that I always try to help people, I'm polite, courteous, dull to the point of being fairly sin free, and (I hope) I always stick up for the underdog. I sometimes regret being like this because it makes me a 'sap' and an 'easy touch' but I'm not like this because 'God' threatens be with punishment in the afterlife. I like this because I believe it's the best way to live.

    Too often people assume that atheists are immoral. That's a shame because most atheists I know are good people, whilst the world burns in places where faith is professed the loudest.