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.
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