Is God’s existence beside the point?

Mark Poprocki / iStock God is a red herring. The question of God’s existence, God’s nature, the issues that bring … Continued


Mark Poprocki / iStock

God is a red herring. The question of God’s existence, God’s nature, the issues that bring religions into war with each other or that bring believers and unbelievers into conflict–these all obscure the deeper currents in our philosophical or religious lives. Like the fans of opposing baseball teams, we can get so wrapped up in our rivalries that we lose sight of what we share.

The personality of a sports fan is infinitely more significant and interesting than the team he roots for: is he a hooligan who sees team rivalries as an opportunity for declaring allegiances and brawling? A stats geek who studies the sports pages like a Talmudic scholar? A casual fan who enjoys rooting for the home team but knows it’s all in good fun? An epicure who experiences a display of transcendent athleticism as a vision of the divine manifesting in human form?

You can immediately tell by the hat someone wears or by the moments she cheers at a baseball game what team she roots for; discerning her personality as a sports fan is not so easy. It is increasingly clear that pluralists or moderates of all religions or secular persuasions find more in common with each other than they do with the zealots in their own ostensible camp. But I am not making an argument for moderation and tolerance here. Because as much as the reasonable among us would like to place ourselves at the admirable end of the continuum between open-mindedness and ideational rigidity, there is something strange about the domain of religion, and the zealots may turn out to be more open-minded, in a way, than the moderates.

I know that atheists get offended when people claim that atheism is another religion. I’d like to make a claim like that, but not for the offensive reason that atheists have faith that God doesn’t exist in the same way believers have faith that he does. That’s a misuse of the word faith and a misrepresentation of the ways most atheists reject the idea of God. My claim, rather, is based on my wanting to see religion (which by my understanding might also be called philosophical engagement) as having much less to do with the contents of any specific belief than with the way people interact with those beliefs. What religion is really about, by this view, is the phenomenon of having one’s conceptions of self, others and “the good” reshaped by an encounter with a community, person, book or body of teachings espousing some particular set of these conceptions. Becoming an atheist, especially from a position very different from atheism, can be a cataclysmic shift in a person’s self-conception and conceptions of morality and the world; similar in many ways to a religious conversion.

Seeing moderates and zealots as falling onto a continuum between open-mindedness and ideational rigidity makes sense until you reflect that zealots, fanatics, fundamentalists generally reach their fanaticism through a kind of extreme open-mindedness. Whether the destination is fanaticism or something milder, coming to a new set of beliefs in the domain of religion or philosophy is a process of self-transformation. When potential atheists read Richard Dawkins or potential evangelicals hear a rousing sermon, they take in new ideas, they see the world in a new way, they reshape their view of who they are, their sense of their responsibilities in the world. The affiliation proclaimed by the letter emblazoned on a person’s baseball cap is only the superficial, temporary manifestation of this fluid and mysterious process.

One reason that people can seem or actually be fanatical and unwilling to consider alternatives to their beliefs is exactly because it is so difficult to change in this way. In order to let an idea change you, you have to be willing to let go of certain previous ways of thinking, you have to step into a frightening unknown, and you may have to reject or become blind to alternative ideas, at least for a time. A person in the midst of a personality change is neither fish nor fowl, but if fowl is the direction he’s heading, there’s bound to be a lot of squawking. This process, I claim, is the central concern of human life. But it is painful, frightening, and exhausting, and it all too commonly peters out into an unproductive rigidity: the fanaticism of a person experimenting with new ideas dies down into a static affiliation.

This barely scratches the surface of the dialectic between rigidity and openness to change, but this dialectic is one of the places we should be looking when we think about religious or philosophical engagement, not just at the content of beliefs. The content is not irrelevant, but if that is all we focus on, we convince ourselves that a brawling hooligan in a Nationals cap has more in common with someone who just likes wearing a red hat than with a brawling hooligan in a Yankees cap. We miss the real drama of religious engagement: what stirs us, how it stirs us, how it confuses us, how it may fill us with righteous indignation at one time and boredom at another, and how it may fill us with hope as long as we continue transforming ourselves through engagement with some set of religious or philosophical ideas.
Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.

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Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.
  • Joel Hardman

    What is a fanatical atheist? How can someone even be fanatical about the idea that god exists? Atheism makes no claims to divine and infallible knowledge, which makes it a poor candidate for fanatical belief. Even the most ardent atheist will allow for the possibility of being wrong. The same cannot be said for religious believers.

    That being said, I do recognize that the religious/non-religious divide can create an in group/out group mentality among non-believers. I still don’t see how that’s comparable to fanatical religious belief.

  • nkri401

    “fanatical atheist”, I think, are who had been deeply religious but perhaps through a tragedy feels betrayed by the Deity. Some people become even more religious through a tragedy.

    I think these are coping mechanism.

  • nkri401

    Are people that tends to worship celebrities more likely to be religiouse as well?

  • nkri401

    Mr. Gold,

    It’s not clear if you are proposing atheistic religion like Buddhism or explanation for a religious experince may be similar to the sport fanaticism?

    To me, religion is a creed and ritual. Theistic religion of course adds deity.

    I think atheism is not an antonym to religion.

  • Rongoklunk

    A fanatical atheist is perhaps a guy who really really hates religions because of their danger (as 9/11 illustrated) and because they retard scientific endeavor; and defy everything we know about reality.
    To believe in a skygod who nobody ever saw, and an after-life who nobody ever returned from – is clearly the worst kind of wishful thinking and denial of reality – and simply because it feels so good.
    The way believers cling to their belief gives the game away. They have no interest in evidence, or in truth. They only care about feeling good. Atheists are interested only in the truth of things.
    And the great skyfella has nothing to do with truth, but with believers feeling good. It is really pathetic.

  • ThomasBaum

    Could be that the reason that fanatical theists can not see themself as being fanatical is basically the same reason that fanatical atheists can not see themself as being fanatical.

  • Rongoklunk

    Baseball fans generally support the team in the town they were raised in. And they generally believe in the religion they were raised in. Not too many Christians raise Muslim or Hindu children. They generally raise Christian kids. Muslims raise little Muslims and Hindus raise little Hindus. So a person is born into a religion by accident, you might say. So it’s odd really that they all believe deeply in whatever they were raised to believe –
    as if hypnotized. And they usually defend it for life. Weird eh? Yeah. That’s religion.

  • itsthedax

    Sure. In the context of religion, belief in a god is pretty much a moot point.

    When any religionist asks if you believe in god, he’s not asking you to affirm the existence of a deity, he’s asking if you believe that his particular interpretation of his religion is the One True Faith. A christian isn’t asking if you believe in VIshnu, Odin or Ahura Mazda; any more than a muslim or jew would be asking if you believe in the trinity.

    Outside of the context of a religion, the question of whether a god exists is pretty meaningless.

  • PhillyJimi1

    “Fanatical Atheists” are just loud and in your face about the believe of a god. Normal or quiet Atheists don’t believe in the magic man in the sky but don’t get in anyone’s face about it.

    I still find it so amazing that people thing someone becomes an atheist because they feel betrayed by some god or they are mad at that god. It has nothing to do with it. I didn’t stop believing in Santa Clause because I didn’t a GI Joe with the kung fu grips. It is I just can’t buy the sales pitch coming from theists. There just is no valid reason beyond wishful deluded thinking.

  • CCNL

    Adding to the above:

    “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today

    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

    It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

  • leibowde84

    I’ve got to say, I was very impressed with this article. What an interesting exploration into the true meaning and value in religious beliefs. All in all, the existence or belief in God is not important. It doesn’t make the world a better place, or make our lives better as a community. The actions that we take as a result of a belief in God are what is important. If only more people would realize this … that we are all in the same boat, and we are in it together for the same goal. Happiness.

  • nkri401

    @dax,

    Thanks for saying what I’ve tried to say.

    There may be god like beings in the universe, but that indeed has nothing to do with any religion on earth.

    It was particularly interesting listening (NPR) to the description of Islamic version of Heaven, where all your desires (even desires that you cannot imagine) are fulfilled. BTW, all the desires seem male perspective also.

    Atheism is more of (and less of the existence of God) the expression of realization that human beings are part of the nature; there is no special after life for us unlike the rest of living beings.

    So make the most of current life you have.

    BTW, if you are still wondering where you go after death, my guess is, you go to the same place you were before you were conceived by your parents.

    Pax.

  • 3vandrum

    May be in another 200 to 300 years all organized religions will go out of favor and disapper, people will be talking less and less about a creator God, more people will become atheists or agnostics. Advancement in Science will replace the need for God. Existence or non existence of a God will not be an issue like today.

  • csintala79

    A religion is more of an expression of one’s culture than of the divine. The Protestant Reformation brought frugality and plainness to the church (modesty in dress and decorum); these were characteristics of Northern Europeans. The character and customs of the people of the North changed the liturgy, doctrine and dogma of the church, not vice versa. Islam didn’t introduce the Middle East and the Levant to repression of women, e.g., the veil. There was little to distinguish the Orthodox women from the Muslim women just as the traditional clothing of Roman Catholic nuns is very similar to the covering of Muslim women. Wars labeled religious were more cultural and economic wars.

  • Rongoklunk

    The divine has always been important to folks. They invented more than 3500 gods over the eons, from Apollo to Zeus. They were addicted to making them up because it helped to comfort them in a world where superstition ruled and knowledge hardly existed. People want to believe in life-after-death, and a god who lives in a place called heaven – where all good people will eventually go after death – so they believe. And it obviously feels good to believe it. But it defies everything we know about reality. These days even scientists are writing books explaining what’s real, and agree there’s still no evidence for a god or an afterlife. Atheists face the grim truth that death means our extinction. Still, facing reality beats believing in comforting impossibilities. Unlike religious folk atheists accept the truth even if it’s ugly.

  • zbob.

    Is not the beginning of most religions throughout human history based on the experiences of one or more mystics who have experiences of consciousness beyond the everyday experiences of most people? Since these experiences are subjective to the mystic, the attempts to communicate the nature of the consciousness experiences of the religion’s founder become misinterpreted and, sometimes, intentionally altered. Whilst the experience of the Buddha are not dependent on a god, the experience of Jesus is totally dependent on his conception of God. (anchored by his culture of the time) However, both of these mystics teach very similar ideas of methods to end one’s suffering (read “sin” in Christianity). Why are the teachings so similar?

  • zbob.

    We are part of nature and, therefore, part of spacetime. Physicist Brian Greene says:

    “So, if you buy the notion that reality consists of the things in your freeze-frame mental image right now, and if you agree that your now is no more valid than the now of someone located far away in space who can move freely, then reality encompasses all of the events in spacetime. The total loaf exists. Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing, too. Past, present, and future certainly appear to be distinct entities. But, as Einstein once said, “For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” The only thing that’s real is the whole of spacetime.

    In this way of thinking, events, regardless of when they happen from any particular perspective, just are. They all exist. They eternally occupy their particular point in spacetime. There is no flow. If you were having a great time at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, you still are, since that is just one immutable location in spacetime. It is tough to accept this description, since our worldview so forcefully distinguishes between past, present and future. But if we stare intently at this familiar temporal scheme and confront it with the cold hard facts of modern physics, its only place of refuge seems to lie within the human mind.

    If time is an illusion then “after”life is a misnomer and should just be “life” (timeless, eternal life).

  • Joel Hardman

    Can you guys give me an example of a fanatical atheist? I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. On the other hand, I personally know several fanatical religious people.

  • SimonTemplar

    Short answer to the headline’s question: “No.”

  • SimonTemplar

    All we have is your claim that they are similar. You will need to provide some clear examples. There are clearly differences. Christ clearly taught the existence of eternal God. Buddha not so much.

  • alert4jsw

    It would seem that God’s existence is pretty much the entire point.

    “Sincerely held religious beliefs” are, in the end, merely opinions since there is no empirical evidence to support any of them. The only thing that gives them value beyond any other opinion is the existence of the God on which those beliefs are based. Without God’s existence, all of the people prattling about “God’s will” about this or that are really just saying “My way” about this or that.

    And as for atheism being a religion? Atheism is a religion in exactly the same way that “bald” is a hair color and ‘”off” is a television channel.

  • SimonTemplar

    Thank you for the examples as it helps me to see exactly where you are starting from in your statement. Frankly I was hoping for quotes that deal more with spiritual matters and questions that connect with “experiences of consciousness beyond the everyday experiences of most people” as you put it.

    With the examples you provided, we might just as easily draw comparisons between the teachings of Ben Franklin and Buddha. That there are similar life experiences between humans around the globe, and those life experiences are expressed similarly in sayings of wisdom or teachings should be expected. But one does not necessarily need a sage to boil down life experiences into nuggets of wisdom.

    When we get beyond the everyday life experiences, into teachings that begin to touch on eternal matters and theology, (beyond everyday experiences, again, as you originally said) there is really NO similarity between the teachings of Christ and those of Buddha. There is DEFINiTELY no alignment between them with regard to the human condition/suffering and human destiny.

  • SimonTemplar

    I don’t pick apart you argument simply for the sake of being argumentative. Christ and Buddha really do teach very different views of reality. The differences between them are important and consequential.

  • nkri401

    Atheism in simplest definition is negative space of Theism.

    A more affirmative definition that I like is if Theism is asking for grace from God to me, then Atheism is asking for grace from we to us.

    IMHO.

  • nkri401

    Is God’s existence beside the point?

    Yes, since if God did not exist, surely, we would have invented the God.

  • SimonTemplar

    I like your illustrative description of atheism as the “negative” space to theism’s “positive” space. Those of us who appreciate art may find it helpful. I hope you don’t mind if I use it in the future.

    But I don’t think we would have invented God if he did not exist because if He did not exist neither would we.

  • SimonTemplar

    The existence of God is not beside the point for if God did not exist neither would we. Likewise all our sniping at each other over who is fanatical and who is moderate and who is to blame for what, etc., etc.

  • itsthedax

    Which god are you referring to?

  • itsthedax

    Which god? Is there just one of them? If not, which is the correct one, and are all others invented by us?

  • nkri401

    I suppose if Ra did not exist, neither would we, indeed.

  • nkri401

    ST,

    You seem to imply that negative is bad and positive is good, like dark is bad and light is good.
    Do you think black is bad and white is good, also?

  • itsthedax

    Psst, you didn’t pick him apart. Not even close.

  • SimonTemplar

    Sorry, I was under the presumption that you understood that when Christians use an uppercase “G” in the word “God” we mean the God of the Bible, creator of the universe.

    Obviously I don’t believe in any other gods. But then I don’t have to. Having looked into other religious beliefs in college, I became convinced in the existence of the God of Judeo/Christian scriptures.

    You see, just because I believe in one God does not mean that I have to believe in every god, especially when that one God in whom I believe manifests all of the qualities necessary to explain the existence of our universe. And the fact that I believe some gods to be false does not mandate that I have to believe that every god is false.

    You as atheists, however, have to believe that every god is false, as if you are not free to consider all of the evidence.

  • SimonTemplar

    @ nkri401, No, of course not. But I like your illustration because it serves as an illustration similar to others which I have used over the years. For example, cold, in and of itself does not exist. Cold is the absence of heat. Darkness is not a thing. Rather, it is the absence of light. Negative space, in the world of art, is the absence of positive space.

    Atheism, is the absence of a theistic perspective.

    @itsthedax, again, why do you insist that I have to believe in every god? Why do you insist that we lack the ability to reasonably come to a conclusion that at least one God exists while the others are in fact false? Why do you persist in the notion that if some gods are false then they are all false? Why do you insist that if some gods are invented by us then they all must be invented by us? Some scientific theories turn out to be false. Does that mean that they are all false? Some evidence for scientific theories has been proven to be falsified, as in deviously contrived to deceive. Does that mean that all such evidence is contrived? Some scientific theories persisted over time purely because of a “group think” mentality among likeminded scientists. Does that mean all scientific theories are only true because of group think? Hardly.

  • SimonTemplar

    itsthedax, again, perhaps you could elaborate?

  • itsthedax

    So God is relevant only within the context of your particular religion. For example, you probably belong to one of the christian sects that adhere to the definition of god as it was established in the ecumenical conferences of the 4th century. Other christian sects do not believe in the trinity, and therefore do not worship the same being that your church has defined, so your deity is irrelevant to them, as it is to Jews, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Pagans, etc.

    After all, every single person who has ever had a monotheistic religion has believed that his was the One True Faith, which means that all other deities are thought to be false and irrelevant, Just has Ahura Mazda and Vishnu are irrelevant to you.

  • itsthedax

    You asked him to provide references. He did. You did not disprove any of the the points he raised, which means you did not pick him apart. You merely did some hand waiving and shifted the goalposts. In effect, you responded to what you wish he had said.

  • itsthedax

    Nope, the point of the article is the relevance of god. My point, mentioned below, is that a particular deity only has meaning or relevance within the context of a particular religion.

    When you claim to believe in a god, you’re just claiming that your particular interpretation of christianity is the One True Faith. That’s the only way that you can believe in a god as defined by your religion.

  • SimonTemplar

    So what’s your point dax? Did someone pass a law that requires us all to believe the same things? Should I feign surprise that there are other faiths in the world as if you have just revealed this startling news to me and I am hearing it for the first time?

    Of course there are other beliefs in the world, including atheism. But they can not all be correct and I will not pretend that I believe they are all correct.

  • SimonTemplar

    He provided a list of sayings from each which look similar when taken individually. If Jesus and Buddha both say something like “Love one another,” the fact that they both make that statement does not mean they are teaching the same thing. Particularly if Christ commands us to love each other because God has so love us, while Buddha dismisses the idea of god. Taking individual comments OUT of their context and saying that they mean the same thing is nonsensical.

    If both teachers comment on what might be classified as everyday, common, life experiences then their comments (taken as individual statements) are bound to be similar. The greater context, however, tells us how they interpret or apply these observations in connection with their overall world views. When considered in context, simple statements which on the surface look identical take on entirely different meanings.

    It may be convenient for you and he to see them as saying the exact same thing. I’m saying they are not saying the same thing and that reading their comments in context will bear this out. If you want to test my position, read them both in context.

  • itsthedax

    Actually, a lot of us are very concerned about christian activists attempts to pass laws in this country that are based on your religion.

    But thank you for admitting that your deity is no more likely to exist than any other, and that religions are equally likely to be incorrect.

  • smitisan

    So you think you exist? Interesting.

  • smitisan

    Most understandings of God, however, posit a being beyond and outside of the illusion, beyond space-time. Such a being does not and cannot exist, not according to any definition of existence acceptable to most of us. In the West, anyway. That does not mean that this God could not be, of course, only that HerIHisIt would be utterly incomprehensible to us/

  • itsthedax

    So, “love they neighbor” has meaning only in the context of your religion? Or are you saying that its meaning is different in your religion?

  • GordonHide1

    @Sigfried Gold
    Even your tentative comparison of atheism with religion does not hold good. The vast majority of the world’s atheists are not like those you find on the internet or those who join atheist groups. They just don’t care. For them ideas about the meaning of life or the origin of existence are profoundly uninteresting. Insofar as some of them have need for community in a similar manner to practising theists they are more likely to get it from some group with whom they have a common interest and this group is only occasionally atheistic in nature.

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