Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April 10, 2007

“Do You Believe in God?”

Ernest Partridge

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In a 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 92% 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 “person.”

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 of God.

Aristotle, Spinoza and Einstein all claimed to believe in God. Did they really believe in God?  What say you?

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 [by abortion], 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 happen'.

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 misfortune.

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 prayers unanswered.

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 worthy 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 possibilities:

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 our Constitution.

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 "A Progressive Moral Philosophy," “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


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .