“Do You Believe in God?”
2008 Pew Research poll, 92% of Americans who were asked this question,
answered in the affirmative.
But did any of those individuals polled pause to ask: “Just what do
you mean by ‘God’?”
To the approximately half of Americans who believe in the God of the Old
Testament who created the world in six days, who wrestled with Jacob, who
spoke to Moses in the burning bush, who stopped the sun in the sky to assist
Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and who ordered
the genocidal obliteration of
entire cities, the answer to the title question is a clear and
unambiguous “yes.” However, as I will discuss shortly, those who
additionally describe their God with “Omnis” (omnipotent, omniscient,
omnibenevolent and omnipresent), may have a problem.
Given the extraordinary political influence of fundamentalist, literal
Bible-believing, science-rejecting Christians, some of whom seek to replace
the Constitution with a Bible-based theocracy, it might well be worth our
while to explore just what it might mean for someone of those 91% percent to
affirm a belief in God.
For many significant individuals in history along with many thoughtful
individuals today, no simple answer can be given to the question, “Do You
Believe in God?.”
For Aristotle, “God” is the Prime Mover: the ultimate unmoved source of all
motion, which is to say, all activity. Aristotle’s God is “pure act:”
Nothing “happens” to God, but God acts, eventually, on all things. While
this God is said by Aristotle to “think” (but thinking only of the object
worthy of God's thought, namely itself), “He” is in no other sense a
To Baruch Spinoza, the 17th Century Dutch-Jewish philosopher, God is the
totality of rational possibility, which means, identical with all of nature
(pantheism). This is a concept of God totally alien to the Abrahamic
religions – Judiasm, Christianity and Islam – a God that is not personal,
conscious, or benevolent. Some called Spinoza, “God Intoxicated.” Others
called him “that hideous atheist.” Which was he? That depends upon what you
mean by “God.”
Finally, what is one to make of Einstein’s “God.” While totally rejecting
the personal God of the Bible and conventional religion, Einstein affirmed
that his religion
... consists of a humble admiration of
the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight
details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That
deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning
power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea
Aristotle, Spinoza and Einstein all
claimed to believe in God. Did they really believe in God? What say
These concepts of God, among many others, point to a fundamental rift in
Western religions and in Christianity in particular. In historical
Christianity, there are, in a sense, two competing and mutually exclusive
Deities: the Absolute God of the philosophers and theologians, and the
personal “Heavenly Father” of the ordinary churchgoer. The former derives
from ancient metaphysics (primarily Greek), and the other from the tribal
religion of the early Hebrews evolving into the religion of the Jews of
Roman Palestine, among them Jesus of Nazareth.
Simply put, most Christians fail to consider seriously the implications of
omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and omnibenevolence. When one does,
what results is a credo such as the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647:
There is but one only living and true
God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure sprit,
invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense,
eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free,
most absolute... Nothing is to him contingent or uncertain.
Early Christian theologians such as St.
Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas took these “Omnis” very seriously.
For both Augustine and Aquinas, God exists “outside” of time and space
(i.e., He is “supernatural”), encompassing both completely. This means not
only that God is everywhere at once (omnipresent), He is also “everywhen.”
All worldly time – past, present and future – is of a single “eternal
present” to the omniscient mind of God. To employ an imperfect analogy, God
is like the Pythagorean Theorem: “outside” of any particular time or place,
but equally true at all times and in all places. (As St. Augustine was fully
aware, God’s “eternal present” raises enormous problems regarding human free
will and moral responsibility, which we will bypass here).
Qua “infinite in being and perfection,” God is immutable. Because
nothing changes Him, nothing affects Him. He is, in philosophical jargon,
“Pure Act,” which means that, being immutable, He does not respond.
Accordingly, one does not bargain with or beseech God. Prayers and rituals
are in vain, if they are expected to “persuade” or in any way initiate a
response from the Almighty.
The “immensity” and “incomprehensibility” of this infinite God is fully
required if He is to “fit” the cosmology presented to us by modern science:
a universe about fourteen billion years old, comprised of billions of
galaxies, each containing billions of stars. And of course, many if not most
scientific cosmologists see no need to make such a “fit.” The vastness and
mystery of the physical universe itself suffices.
Unfortunately, this conception of God also puts Him out of reach of ordinary
worship, for not even the extraordinary mind of an Einstein can relate
personally to this “immense” Deity, any more than one can relate personally
to the entire universe and the physical laws that it embodies.
Needless to say, the “Heavenly Father” of the ordinary churchgoer is quite
different. That Deity is a personal Being. It is written that He is loving,
compassionate, jealous, wrathful and vengeful. He responds to prayer,
blesses the virtuous and faithful, and condemns the sinners, perchance to
eternal torment. His wrath, Rev. Falwell tells us, was manifest on
September 11, 2001:
... when we destroy 40 million little
innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and
the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who
are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU,
People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize
America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped make this
The personal, loving nature of this
transcendent “parent” is testified to in “faith-promoting stories” told in
most Theistic religions.
Pat Robertson, who assures us that he routinely converses with God, has
often told how, in answer to his prayer, the Lord diverted a hurricane that
was headed straight toward Robertson’s headquarters and university. However,
he never explains why those who were hit by the hurricane, diverted due to
the Almighty's accommodation to the good Reverend's request, deserved their
At our household, we are visited each month by “home teachers” from our
local church (which we never attend), who almost always read us such
stories. Thus we have heard of numerous prayers that have been answered by
“our Heavenly Father.” In one story, a desperate mother was at a total loss
at how to build a kite for her child. After a prayer, the Lord supplied the
answer. Another faithful soul was reminded of the combination of a lock, and
yet another, after a prayer, was able to restart a stalled car. We also
heard a story of how a prayerful child was shown in a dream where to find a
lost puppy. And many more. (Really! I’m not making this up!).
We listen to these stories patiently and without critical comment, for we
see no reason to offend our visitors. They are kind and worthy people, and
we value their friendship.
But on reflection, we find such stories to be outlandish, to say the least
of it. Even sacrilegious. For in these stories, the Lord God Almighty,
creator and ruler of the vast universe, is reduced to the status of a cosmic
Google and “Mr. Fixit.” And a very selective one at that. For, while we are
asked to believe that all these prayers were duly answered, at the same time
millions died in abject poverty and of horrible diseases, their faithful
Granted, these stories are naive and childlike in the extreme. Even so, for
the vast majority of adherents of the Abrahamic religions, God (or Yahweh,
or Allah) is an exalted person who converses with His prophets, answers
prayers, suspends physical laws to performs miracles, and manifests thereby
His wrath, His love, and His compassion.
Notwithstanding the theologian’s insistence, as stated in the Westminster
Confession, that God is immutable and “without body parts or passions.”
So which is it? A personal “Heavenly Father” who is actively engaged with
the world, thus perpetually changing with the onset of events and in
response to the prayers of the faithful? Or is He the perfect, immutable,
infinite being of the theologians? Upon careful reflection neither
alternative might be particularly attractive to those desperate to find and
believe in an object of worship.
David Hume, in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” clearly
recognized this dilemma. On the one hand, conceive of God as an exalted
person, and the Divine is reduced to human dimensions, with unsettling
This world, for aught [one] knows, is
very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard, and was only
the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it,
ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work of some dependent
inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors; it is
the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity....
From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all
these have place.
On the other hand:
I ask the theist, if he does not
allow, that there is a great and immeasurable, because incomprehensible,
difference between the human and the divine mind: the more pious he is,
the more readily will he assent to the affirmative, and the more he will
be disposed to magnify the difference.
And with that “magnification,” the Deity
recedes from our comprehension and from our personal involvement. This
Deity, remember, is “incomprehensible.” He acts, but never responds. The
timeless Creator and sustainer of everything, He is not “personally”
involved in particular with anything or anyone. But how can one worship that
which one cannot comprehend? How can one have a personal connection with an
infinite being that is “without body parts or passions”?
At this point, reasoned contemplation ends, and faith takes over – a faith
wherein, as Kierkegaard said, we must “tear out the eyes of our reason” and
believe because it is absurd.
And here too is the great divide: the atheist and agnostic insist that where
reason and evidence end, so too must belief. To the believer (the vast
majority of Americans), faith – “the substance of things hoped for, and the
evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews, II-1) – suffices as justification for
belief: belief that the Bible (or the Torah, or the Qu’ran) is the Word of
God, belief in the divine mission of Jesus (or of Moses, or of Mohammed),
belief that God (or Yahweh, or Allah) is the foundation of moral law.
Is morality possible apart from a personal God – a moral law-giver who is in
addition a cosmic Santa Claus who knows when each of us is sleeping and
awake, and if we’ve been bad or good? I believe that a morality apart from
God is possible, as exemplified in the lives of many saintly and heroic
atheists and agnostics. And this is fortunate, for a secular morality,
belonging exclusively to no particular religion, offers itself as a neutral
arbiter among all religions. This, presumably, is what the founders of our
republic had in mind, when they wrote and ratified the First Amendment to
The question of the possibility of morality without religion is too large
and complicated to deal with in this brief space. Perhaps I might take it up
in another essay. (In the meantime, see my
“One Nation, Under
God, Divisible”, and most extensively,
Religion, Education and
Morality: A Dialogue).
And so, having offended some ninety percent of those who might read this,
perhaps I’d better stop here.
Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge