Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Does It Mean To Believe In God?

"I just couldn't in good conscience vote for a person who doesn't believe in God."
Contact was a great movie and an even better book. In it, the author Carl Sagan does a particularly adept and wonderful job addressing the human investment in belief.
If you are not acquainted with the book or movie, here is the gist - the atheist scientist Ellie Arroway discovers an alien message that contains directions to build an interstellar spaceship. In the movie, she develops a tentative romance with the President's religious advisor, Palmer Joss. Palmer is part of the team that selects who will ride in the single seat spacecraft. Palmer does not select Arroway and this is part of the conversation that follows:
ELLIE ARROWAY - Why did you do it?
PALMER JOSS - Our job was to select someone to speak for everybody. And I just couldn't in good conscience vote for a person who doesn't believe in God. Someone who honestly thinks the other ninety five percent of us suffer from some form of mass delusion.
ELLIE ARROWAY - I told the truth up there. And Drumlin told you exactly what you wanted to hear.
Two things catch me about their exchange. First, Palmer makes a common religious move here regarding belief. He speaks as if only atheists believe religious people are deluded. In reality, most religious people are of the opinion that anyone holding to a religious belief other than theirs is deluded. Belief is not the monolith that Palmer implies.

Second, Arroway makes the point that she is being punished for being honest; she sees no reason to believe in God, and says so. Dr. Drumlin's belief in God is one of convenience. He knows the right words to say to set the believer's mind at ease, but his belief does not go much deeper than that.

This reality makes me ponder what we mean when we speak of belief in God. We seem to have a sliding scale in terms of what we believe, and we also have varied motivations as to why. When entering into these discussions, we almost need to set the ground rules of what God we are talking about. Here are the four gods I primarily hear about: (for the following, I am going to speak mostly in terms of American Christian, since these are the waters I swim in).

This is the God of the team player; the God of the Tribe. If you believe in anything other than this God, you are doomed. This is the God of Franklin Graham, Michelle Bachmann, and the Religious Right.

God - God Lite 
This god is similar on paper to the god of the Religious Right, but with lots more wiggle room. He has calmed down a bit since the old days, and most of what was said of him during that time was misreported. Nowadays he is all about the love! A lot of religious young people fall into this camp. They loudly proclaim their allegiance to god, but they also want their gay friends to get married and they have started voting democrat. There is a lot of movement between this group and the group above. There are plenty of folks out there who want their God to look more loving, but still want to keep Hell stoked for said homosexuals and democrats.

god - god of The Secret 
This god is very airy and hard to pin down. It is more like a set of laws of the universe. How you think, believe, and visualize your reality is very important. This is the god of Wayne Dyer, Benny Hinn, and Oprah Winfrey.

god - The Watchmaker 
Some people believe that a Force brought the Universe into existence, but does not intervene. Like Jefferson, they believe he wound the watch and it now runs on its own.

Amidst these varied definitions of god, there is also the WHY to be considered. For folks like Dr. Drumlin, belief in God is just a point to be acquiesced in order to move along in this world. For others, it is an insurance policy, or a security blanket, or a belonging mechanism, or a learned fear, or a dear hope. The gods worshiped and the motivations are as varied as the people clinging to them.

So the next time someone tells you they believe in god, you may want to ask for a clarification.


Jeanne said...

Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in on this. As someone who has followed your blog since before you turned atheist, I have been looking for a chance to discuss your reasoning.

As for me, I do not fall into one of those categories but would consider my belief a mix of the last 3. And the belief with which i was brought up falls into a combination of the first 2, although about 75% number 1.

I still believe in God because in my experience i see way too many bad things in my life ultimately working together for good for me to believe its sheer coincidence.

That said I don't presume to know that much about God, so that puts me in category 3. What I do believe with as much certainty as humanly possible is that God is love (#2) and that he doesn't actually intervene much in our daily lives (#4).

Something you wrote recently that sums up my belief about God is the post about loving His kids. I do believe that is our purpose and test in life and our opportunity to know God better.

Andrew said...

Jeanne - thanks for reading and for commenting.

I think most folks are a bit of a blend when it comes to the type of god they envision, and also what is motivating them.

What I notice is a lot of folks in that first group trying to paint god as if he were the god of the second group. Sometimes, I think that is because they really do desire a loving god, but feel bound for various reasons to default to a more harsh view presented by tradition and some parts of scripture.

If I were still to believe, I would lean toward you view - he may be loving, but doesn't intervene much. :)

Don said...

"For others, it is an insurance policy, or a security blanket, or a belonging mechanism, or a learned fear, or a dear hope."

I find this very true.

Jon Eastgate said...

Hmm, what you leave out here is Joss's own faith. If I remember right (it's a while since I saw this) he is a very sympathetic character who ultimately regrets his choice and supports Ellie, even when others dismiss her journey as an illusion. And Ellie becomes the prophet and bearer of a faith that defies evidence. Neither Joss's faith nor Ellie's appears on your list.

I think you're right, though, about asking which god believers actually believe in, and in questioning motives. I'm reading a book at the moment called "Suspicion and Faith" by Merold Westphal, in which he reviews the critiques of religion put forward by Freud, Marx and Neitzsche as a kind of Lenten meditation, throwing light on our individual and collective failings as religious people. Very sobering!

Andrew said...

I think Joss's faith was definitely one of "God-Lite" with a touch of category 3 in the movie (category 1 in the book). He sees God in broad and ecumenical terms.

I don't think Ellie's situation is faith... it may be for others to believe her, but her belief is experiential. She didn't have faith in unspeaking, unseen aliens... she saw and spoke with them. She is not interpreting random events and drawing a conclusion, she is relaying concrete events.

Jon Eastgate said...

Ha Andrew, so you say, because the movie is told mostly from her point of view. But if it had told the story from the perspective of the onlookers, all the evidence points to her journey being an illusion since the vessel went nowhere and only seconds elapsed before she emerged. We have a choice and we choose to go with her because the movie tells her story well, but all the evidence points the other way. The tale of faith in a nutshell, I reckon. On top of that, the aliens are virtually gods. :)

Andrew said...

Oh, I understand that... but my point is that SHE is not using faith, others would have to use faith to believe her story since she has no evidence. She might be asking others to take a leap of faith to believe her story, but she is not making that leap.

Palmer Joss is making no claim to having seen God or spoken with him ... he is relying on the tales of others and probably on some level assigns meaning and attribution to certain events in his life which he assigns to God - i.e. this particular event is so fortuitous that it had to be divine intervention. He has faith that, without personal evidence, these things are so. He is asking others to make the same leap he is making.

Jon Eastgate said...

Yes, making your faith compulsory is kind of self-defeating, a great incentive for hypocrisy as Drumlin shows. What I like about Joss is that he's capable of growth and repentance, one of the hardest lessons of faith even if we think we have already learnt it. I think you downplay the religious element in Ellie's story, though. Her life is driven by faith that the aliens are real, and for her that faith is vindicated and gives her life purpose, even though alternative explanations make more sense. Many people in our world claim to have seen saints or angels but skeptics are easily able to come up with more likely and purely natural explanations - this story merely transports that situation into outer space.

Andrew said...

I don't see Ellie's search for alien life as "faith" in the same way that someone else believes in angels or spirits. She has scientific and mathematical probability, based on life on our own world, that other worlds may hold life... she knows such a search is like a needle in a haystack and may well lead nowhere. That simply seems different to me than someone claiming there are spirits all around us, with no evidence, other than ancient peoples said they were there.

Jon Eastgate said...

She makes a claim to special revelation. Why should anyone else believe her?

Andrew said...

No one should... unless she has evidence, her experience is only knowable to her.

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