SCS President Addresses World Religions Conference
They posed the question: Who is God? Nature and Characteristics
Here is our president’s answer.
God is a Metaphor
In the absence of any empirical evidence for the existence of gods, we non-believers do not think of them or any supernatural beings as real entities, but rather as products of mankind’s psychology and imagination. God is a metaphor for all the unexplained occurrences that have confronted human beings ever since human beings began to make connections between the environment and our future. That metaphor has several variations including: God the creator, God the controller of seasons, God the leader, God the judge, and God the scapegoat. All of these modes reflect concerns of the human beings who have created him, or her, or it in all the thousands of forms and attitudes gods have taken over thousands of years of human development and in all of them we see the direct reflection of the culture and knowledge of the society that created them and worshipped them.
Most of the early Gods were directly related to natural phenomena – the sun, the moon, nature in general. Mankind, looking for explanations of natural phenomena, in the absence of modern science or scientific methods, seems to have filled the void with supernatural beings. The Sun, travelling across the sky became a fiery chariot ridden by a special warrior. Gods were characterized as winds. Some wielded lightning bolts, others fire. All were portrayed as having some kind of human form or other. Hunting societies had hunting gods, agrarian societies had gods related to that livelihood and so on.
God the creator has had many forms, but I will use the one in the Bible primarily, even though there are some really interesting ones in other religious texts. In Genesis, God creates the Heavens and Earth in six days and rests on the seventh. From a non-believing perspective, this seems very human of Him. Why would an all-powerful being need to rest after six days of rather nominal labour? After all, when he said, on the third day, “Let there be light” there was light. Rubbing two cosmic sticks together or even flicking a divine Bic would have required more energy. Certainly, creating fire on earth was labour intensive for human beings. This God of creation had the kind of vulnerability to fatigue that his creators had.
Another clue to the creation of this metaphor comes from the same part of the Genesis story – on the fourth day He created the stars. Since his creators did not equate stars with light in the universe, or for that matter as separate entities rather than a part of a permanently fixed firmament, this impossible or at least difficult order of things – light before there were sources of light – is a not a surprising human literary mistake. An all knowing, all-powerful God would have known this and surely would have taken the more logical path of creating sources of light before manipulating them.
Oh, you say, I am not supposed to take the Book of Genesis literally, but metaphorically. Hmm. how can I fit that into my argument?
God the controller of seasons, Father or more popularly, Mother Nature, explained, in the absence of Environment Canada, (you know, the folks who have us shovel 10 cm. of partly cloudy off our driveways from time to time), why the frost came earlier than expected or why there was a drought. Ancient agricultural cultures spent quite a bit of time trying to appease the Gods of nature. Of course, the gods of early societies were intimately involved with nature since the whims of nature were life and death causing mood changes in a world of marginal agricultural technology.
Even the relatively sophisticated Greeks ascribed lightning to Zeus, and storms at sea to an angry Poseidon. This relationship between God and lightning seems to have become confused later on causing Deist, Benjamin Franklin to chuckle at the need for churches to install one of his inventions, the lightning rod.
My ancestors whom those Greeks named Keltoi – the outsiders – had Druid priests who constructed large structures to determine the exact day of winter solstice and summer solstice in an attempt to give farmers a better chance in northern Europe’s shorter growing season. They were early astronomers of some skill and of course demanded support from their society in the manner to which they aspired and sacrificed a few human beings along the way to ensure their positions of power. Even modern tele-evangelists don’t go that far.
Druids created a pantheistic set of gods who inhabited the trees, rivers, rocks and all the parts of nature that a stone-age culture struggling to survive would consider important. These spirits reported to a great dragon that lived beneath the earth. When the dragon was at rest good things happened, but when he was awakened, bad things happened. Was this an ancient memory of a less stable geological time? After all one need only observe the devastation that earthquakes can cause to modern society to understand the damage such a beast would inflict if its scales got ruffled and it became agitated in its lair.
God the leader is a constant in all of the Gods invented because the need for someone to support a society, and ensure that it is rightly superior to those around it, is very strong. One must have the right kind of god to be successful in matters of war, for example. The early Hebrew God was a very wrathful individual who would be quite capable of sending angels of death to murder the first born of Egyptians who did not mark their doorways with lamb’s blood – a curious, seemingly superfluous requirement for an all-knowing God – unless the term “angel of death” is a metaphor for more human agents. Yahweh was exactly the kind of God a rebelling Hebrew slave culture needed to terrorize Egyptians into granting it freedom; unfortunately he wasn’t much of an economist since he led the Jews to the only place in the Middle East with no oil. To us non-believers, the omniscience of a created God seems unlikely to be any greater than that of his creators and it isn’t.
Nevertheless, his war leader qualities come to the fore often enough. In both of the 20th century’s major wars, German soldiers wore belt buckles embossed with “Gott mit uns” – “God with us” and every allied regiment that landed at Normandy brought with it a coterie of chaplains to remind the allied soldiers that He was with them. We atheists, and there were plenty of us in foxholes, by the way, chose to fend for ourselves. Notice that the warring nations, both with long Christian traditions refrained from publicly invoking the help of Jesus. He, after all, was the metaphor for the peaceful side of God. The Japanese warlords who took over that country in the late 1930s and 40s made sure the Shinto Gods were on their side.
God, the judge, is an important one even to us non-believers, even if only indirectly. The rules that were given to Moses, supposedly by Yahweh, tribal though they were, are still quoted, after suitable interpretation by one of the 33,000 Christian sects or many Jewish sects, as rules for behaviour. The admonition, “Thou shalt not kill” seems clear enough until one reads the “clarification” of the laws in other parts of the Bible and sees that not killing is limited to one’s own tribe and does not prevent unspeakable acts against one’s enemies. Of course in modern texts this law is interpreted as “Thou shalt not murder,” thus letting the State of Texas off with its death penalty. Once again, to us, this seems to be a very human set of laws, beset by the tribal foibles of human beings.
Theists often assume that we non-believers are evil sinners by default, because we don’t accept these as rules from a divine being. This assumption has nothing to do with the Humanist reality. When was the last time you heard of a Humanist Terrorist? Of course, the Ten Commandments don’t cover such problems as racism, and slavery. To be fair, neither do Epicurus’ forty principles. They are, after all, all rules made up by men of their time. Perhaps the next iteration of a created God metaphor will have to include these modern concepts.
However, this assumption that non-believers are at least suspect when moral issues are at hand leads believers to assume the right to discriminate against non-believers in ways that society would quickly condemn were the subjects believers. It led a church in British Columbia to assume the right to put up a sign saying that “Humanism is the new evil.” The church leaders were surprised when the B.C. Human rights tribunal ruled against them.
I presume the same would be true of the church leaders on Bloor Street in Toronto who once posted a sign saying, “Atheists are fools”. What would the societal reaction have been if those signs had substituted a religious group’s name for “Humanism” or “atheist”: unthinkable, of course.
Let’s be clear on one thing: We can be and are good without gods!
One thing separates God, the judge, from the other metaphoric existences – He seems to need help in the form of the Devil, another human creation who lives, like the Druid Dragon, beneath the Earth’s surface and keeps those hell fires going for eternity – or until the Leafs win the Stanley Cup – whichever comes first. Again this Devil is a fine example of a hyperbolic metaphor for unspeakable horror of the kind that should keep any follower in order.
God the scapegoat is, perhaps, the worst of the metaphoric projections. Whenever there is a disaster, large or small, some theist is likely to use the magic phrases, “God’s will” or “He works in mysterious ways” to salve the angst of the victims. Thus, the tsunami that ripped into the Philippines was a demonstration of God’s wrath because not enough people were going to Mosque regularly and a little girl who was injured by farm machinery near Elmira was a part of God’s will and plan rather than a victim of her father’s inattention – at least, that’s what he said to a reporter.
I maintain that the scapegoat metaphor is the worst one because people use it as a self-serving to escape responsibility or to avoid facing some of the cold realities of life, or, at worst, to justify acts of violence as “doing god’s work. Non-believers understand that the universe is an uncaring natural phenomenon, not designed for our convenience or even our survival. With us Humanists, the responsibility for human mistakes and bad deeds rests where it should – with us.
There are, actually, few real physical descriptions of God in the Bible. Most of what we see when we try to imagine this God, is the compilation of artists’ impressions over the centuries. Gods generally fit the image of the culture from which they derive. Egyptian Gods all wore the same climate specific clothing of Egyptians. African depictions of Jesus are often black. Images of Gods are usually racially adjusted, culturally dressed, suitably male chauvinist in male dominated societies and female chauvinist in rare female cultures.
Literature that survives long enough tends to influence our perceptions of historic figures, even those we have created. For example, we accept Shakespeare’s 400-year-old hatchet jobs on Richard III and on Macbeth, both done to appease the contemporary Monarchs, as accurate because Shakespeare looms so large on the literary stage. Richard III was neither a hunchback nor a murderer of child princes: Macbeth didn’t murder anyone, Duncan did. In short, we tend to accept literary caricatures as plausible or even true because of the ability of the writer, not necessarily in relaying facts, but in creating a striking an image we like to believe.
Of course, the artist’s vision sometimes rings very true!
In the same way, we see often see God in the image created by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – a gray-bearded grandfatherly human being, reaching out kindly to a lesser being. There is no evidence for this, or even for the existence of God, but given Mike’s reputation . . .
So, God, the metaphor, is omnipresent by virtue of the ubiquitous imaginations of human beings, all trying to cope with the harshness of a universe into which we have evolved and in which we have little significance. He or She or It has been created in the same diversity as our cultures, and is harmless except for the damage done in His or Her or Its name.