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More about God, atheism, and agnosticism

December 10, 2011

Over the time I’ve been blogging, I’ve experienced what might appear to be a subtle shift in the way I use language and talk to other people. I hope my earliest blogging will confirm this, but I view myself as having always wanted to let people have their own experiences — especially if others will grant me the same privilege. So, I have tried to phrase my statements in subjective or personal terms rather than universal, objective terms.

In other words, I’m more likely to say, “It seems to me that…” rather than just saying that something is the case.

In focusing on the subjectivity of experience, I have had an underlying assumption regarding their supposed objective referent: that in many cases, the referent may not exist as the person believes or feels it to.

Here’s an illustration. Whenever people talk about their experiences in believing in God, I’ve wanted to accept that they’ve had these experiences. How dare I deny their subjective experiences?

But when  I was conceding that — yes, they probably did have such experiences — I would also raise up that I wasn’t convinced that their experience pointed to the external reality of God. In other words, their experiences may have happened, and I can see how that impacts them, their actions, their beliefs, etc., but that doesn’t mean that they are interpreting them correctly. The same is ultimately true for me or anyone, so the important this is to have an awareness of that possibility — the conclusion you draw has meaning not because it actually is the case, but because it is the conclusion you drew. It is yours more than an objective reality ever was or could be.

So, that’s where I’ve started. Or at least, that’s how I hope I started.

Over time, however, I’ve had — as I said before — a subtle shift in the way I talk about others’ experiences. I don’t know if it’s just to be polite linguistically or if it’s a larger shift.

To state it simply, the way I respond to people (especially believers) is more likely to grant certain implied existence claims about God.

I want to reiterate that this is about language. I’m just wondering if it implies anything further (and I imagine that some believers probably think it implies something further, which I’ll have to deal with at some time or another.)

I’ll illustrate in a before and after scenario.

Suppose someone is talking to me about their beliefs in God. They believe that God is x, y, and z, and that they’ve had a, b, and c experiences with God and that’s why they believe what they do.

Before, I’d likely respond in a way that granted that they probably experienced those things, and so it was understandable that they might view attribute that to a deity…but why not consider that other people could have different experiences or that those experiences a, b, and c might be interpreted differently?

But now, I find myself responding something like this:

“Well, you might know God, but I haven’t met him. God doesn’t talk to me. Or if he does, it’s not in any way I can recognize.”

See the difference? This language implicitly concedes that there is a god to know, a god to talk to someone.

Now, I think that I could just be saying this to be polite and not challenge their understanding of their own experiences. That doesn’t mean that I accept that their explanations are true (e.g,. that they really have experiences with some being that could be described as God), but it’s possible that I could.

An Alternate Viewpoint

I’ve been entertaining a variation on the above theme of a shift in language use that implies a shift in underlying beliefs. But it hinges upon the ambiguity of the expression, “I believe in God”. What does that phrase mean? Is it equivalent to the expression “I believe God exists”? What does that expression mean, either?

The variation on the above theme is based on a split in the two expressions. In other words, I concede in the way I talk (and maybe in the way I think…but as I get further in this section, hopefully I’ll clarify why this is difficult to tell) that I can believe that something worthwhile of being called “God” exists and that others may have meaningful experiences with him — but that nevertheless, he has not made any meaningful intrusions in my life so far as I can recognize.

In this case, I have to wonder…what would my answers to the questions, “Do I believe God exists?” and “Do I believe in God?” would be?

The latter seems a lot easier. I don’t know how to tease out what it means to believe “in” something — at least with respect to God — but I can answer, no. I still have no reason to believe in God. He’s not doing anything for me, so far as I can tell. I haven’t even met the guy/girl/force/energy/whatever.

But the former question…for me to talk about God in this new way, am I conceding a “yes” answer?

Now, for a different subject…

In a slightly related (but maybe completely unrelated matter), I think that the question of existence doesn’t even seem all that relevant to me. OK, assume God exists. What the hell does that mean or imply? Increasingly, I’m beginning to feel that I have no clue what that bare fact would or would not mean. I can somewhat readily concede that God exists if I don’t assume that would have any impact on how things are.

The problem is that many believers (and nonbelievers too, I guess) don’t operate like that. If God exists, therefore…morality! Therefore…meaning! There are all these assumptions on what the universe would look like with God or without God, and I can’t mesh those with the universe I experience on a day to day basis.

So, religions don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. They are perpetuating these entire story lines that don’t seem to follow from…anything. They don’t follow from the bare facts of the universe; they don’t even follow from God.


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  1. This post is timely… I have been thinking a lot about the value of and the interpretations of various subjective experiences of my own…

    I like the questions you raise about the idea of belief in God and how to frame and define that. Belief in God, whether deity exists or not has shaped the world. That is something that I would like to spend more time pondering. Have you read any of Karen Armstrong’s books?

  2. I have begun using this approach with religious believers that come to the door. “If your god exists, why would I want to worship it?”

  3. Kiley,

    I haven’t read any of Karen Armstrong’s books. From the reviews/summaries/excerpts I’ve read, what she writes doesn’t quite seem like my cup of tea…but then again, the last time I read reviews/summaries/excerpts was when I was feeling quite differently about the topic. (E.g, couldn’t understand *why* people would find non-literal belief compelling.)


    That’s kinda where I’m coming to, as well. I feel like there are a lot of really unsophisticated answers…I’ve talked to a lot of people who seem to feel that if God exists, is all-powerful, etc., then there’s no reasonable choice but to worship it. “If you could go to Hell, then wouldn’t you want to avoid that?” I’ve never felt that avoiding a punishment is a compelling argument to worship a being.

  4. Since I am in a different position, I reframed this question for myself as “What was it about my encounter with God that got me to sit up and listen, to pay attention enough to want to completely reorient my life around a commitment and devotion to him?”

    The answer to that question is a very immediate, direct and personal experience of God’s pure, unadulterated love.

    Certainly not fear of punishment!

    I definitely had a sense, in those conversion experiences (plural — there were several major experiences and lots of minor experiences) that I was encountering some being outside of myself both infinitely powerful and perfectly loving. I wrestle with using words like “infinitely” and “perfectly” — they’re so overused in theological language. And part of me, the rational me, says what do I know of either infinity or perfection? How do I judge? So just think of the words as metaphors or superlatives. A power and love beyond anything I know in this world. Also light. In those experiences of God, I experienced lightness in the sense of all my burdens being lifted or removed; and (sorry for the play on words here) light in the sense of pure or perfect understanding.

    There was also — in the presence of superlative power, love and light — a sense of my own inadequacy… All the ways in which I myself possess none of those qualities. So I could not help but bow myself down and apologize to God for my failings. And that was when I was able to experience that quality of perfect mercy and forgiveness. “Your sins are forgiven you.” And that was also the moment when I experienced all those qualities — of strength, of love, of pure light and mercy flowing through me. All the people I had ever been angry at, I instantly forgave. Every situation I had ever been frustrated with, I simply let go. All the loss I had ever experienced, I realized had a purpose. It had helped teach me something valuable about myself.

    That’s my best description of those encounters with God, encounters which I renew on a regular basis as I seek to walk in the path of Christ. I’m very aware that if I want to keep the goodness flowing — and I very, very, very much do! — I need to work at it. There is a path, most perfectly exemplified in the life of Christ, as recorded in scripture. And that experience of love and light and mercy is worth reorganizing pretty much my whole live in order to get in line with it, in order to renew and keep that.

    All the rest is filth and crap… Desire to look good in front of others, to be “respectable,” desire to avoid punishment or suffering, desire to be honored and have prestige, desire to be on the “winning” side, desire to be in control, whatever… There’s a whole host of “religious” motivations that — at least from the point of view of the experiences I’ve had — look like so much dreck. I understand people’s alienation from institutional religion, because those seem to be the controlling motivations in so much of it.

    Also, when we’re motivated by those things, we can only take so much of it. I might sign on for a month or a year or even two years for the sake of having fame or friends or comfort. But I think only the path of love will keep us going for a life time… It’s like the parable of the sower… Lots of seeds will sprout for a time, but eventually they dry up or get choked or eaten up… Only the good seeds in good soil will keep growing for a life time.

  5. John,

    thanks for posting that. I can see how that would be compelling…I just haven’t experienced anything near it.

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  1. I don’t understand it, but I like it. « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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