Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An atheist’s problems with the term “God”

From guest blogger, Andrew J. 

This is a topic I have thought about before and was reminded of during our discussions of “God”.  As an atheist activist, someone who has actively tried to convince Christians and Muslims to become atheists, I have put some thought into different strategies to use to accomplish this.  One of these strategies involves how we refer to gods.  In the three main forms of Abrahamic mythology, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is supposed to be one god.  This god is called “God” with a capital G.  Zeus from Greek mythology is also a god, but is called a “god” with a small g.  Since Greek mythology is polytheistic, this is makes some sense.  Though Zeus may be the leader of the gods, he is one of many gods.  But in Abrahamic mythology, there is not this god and that god, but one god, who is very revered (and jealous), so he gets a big G to show that he’s the only one.  I think the resulting term “God” is a hindrance to atheist activism and causes imprecise thought about religion and Abrahamic mythology.

Here are some of the effects I think result from the use of the term “God”:
1.  It muddies things up.  It lends itself to becoming a very vague term which each person can shape into what they prefer in a supernatural being.  You have people saying things like “God is the universal spirit”, “I don’t believe in organized religion, but I believe in God”, “I’m not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim, but I believe in God”, “I believe that we are all God”, or “God is nature” etc.  Thus the term “God” is used in ways that have nothing to do with the god in Jewish mythology or the god in Christian mythology, or the god in Muslim mythology.  This is frustrating and annoying. 
2.  It creates a sense of mystique and unapproachability about the idea.  Instead of referring to a specific god with a specific name and specific characteristics to be considered, it creates the feeling that it is some mysterious thing, behind the title “God”, which we cannot comprehend.  The capital G is supposed to show reverence and respect and put the god it labels above us and unanswerable to us.  Thus the term “God” seems non-conducive to a skeptical, analytical approach to the idea, which I also find to be an annoying effect.
My suggestion: Replace the term “God” with something more specific.

If we are going to talk about the god in Jewish mythology, we should be clear and use his name “Yahweh”, the equivalent of “Zeus”, rather than the foggy, mysterious title “God”.  This will help people to remember that we are talking about a specific being with specific properties, who did specific things, who wants specific things, who will do specific things etc.  We should make it clear that if someone believes in a god that does not have these properties, then they do not believe in the god of Jewish mythology; they do not believe in Yahweh, they believe in some other god.

This helps for atheist activism because it moves from “God” a vague, high above you, concept you cannot latch onto, to Yahweh, a specific being with such and such properties as described in book X, and which seems much more evaluable.  Once you use the term Yahweh, or “the god described in Jewish mythology” or “the god described in the Torah”, you can actually nail some properties to him and ask whether they make sense and whether there is any reason to think that this god, with properties x, y, and z, actually exists.

Another point, on differentiating between gods of the different Abrahamic mythologies:  The god described in Jewish mythology is different from the god described in Christian mythology, and both are different from the god described in Muslim mythology.  Each of these religions describes a god that has some different properties from the gods described in the other religions.  They should therefore not be called the same god.  I think the best way to refer to these gods is “the god described in X mythology” or “the god described in book X”.  Once again, this nails the concept down, which is good for atheist activists, because it allows us to criticize the specifics in the scriptures which describe whichever god (and there is a lot to criticize in the Torah, New Testament, and Quran).  But it is also useful for clarity in general in religious and philosophical discussion.

I’d be interested in comments about whether people think the term “God” has the effects I suggested, or whatever else you’d like to comment about.

As an aside, readers of this blog might find the following links of interest:

“The thing god doesn’t know”:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6-zi25GgVE
“The thing god can’t do”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdxeqEoDXco
“10 reasons why the bible is repulsive”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkXOwBIRX7Y


Anonymous said...

Just as an aside, if you think Yahweh is the equivalent of Zeus, as character and disposition, then I venture to affirm you haven't carefully read either.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Andrew was clearly not making a comparison of the "character and disposition" of Yahweh and Zeus. So Anon's comment seems to miss the target completely.

Perhaps Fischer's paper on hard/soft facts that we read for class will be helpful. He discusses the title (akin to a job title) "God" and the name "Yahweh." As Fischer points out, the former is not a rigid disignator, whereas the latter is. It's possible for Yahweh not to be God and God not to be Yahweh. Maybe this can help in getting some of Andrew's points off the ground.

Anonymous said...

Point taken; it seems that the character and disposition of Yahweh, if not Zeus, explictly is under scrutiny here - but not Christ's. Schopenhauer makes the distinction between will (character and disposition) and representation (plurality). The former is the what of the latter, the inner content of that which represents - in-itself, and that reveals itself through philosophy and art. Hegel makes the distinction between Spirit and matter and these are opposites which bear no relation to one another. Character and disposition are within us; spirit without. Compare and contrast Yahweh with Hegel's notion of providence:

“What the absolute aim of Spirit requires and accomplishes - what Providence does - trancsends the obligations, and the liability to imputation and the ascription of good or bad motives, which attach to individuality in virtue of its social relations. They who on moral grounds, and consequently with noble intention, have resisted that which the advance of the Spiritual Idea makes necessary, stand in higher moral worth than those whose crimes have been turned into the means - under the direction of a superior principle - of realizing the purposes of that principle. But in such revolutions both parties generally stand within the limits of the same circle of transient and corruptible existence. Consequently it is only a formal rectitude - deserted by the living Spirit and by God - which those who stand upon ancient right and order maintain. The deeds of great men, who are the Individuals of the World's History, thus appear not only justified in view of that intrinsic result of which they were not conscious, but also from the point of view occupied by the secular moralist.”

Michael Dean Hebert said...

One thing to note, Andrew, is that since many people believe there is one god (that is to say, God) they believe that others believe in the existence of the same god, but are simply mistaken about what he is like. They don't believe that the others believe in a different god.

Imagine that two people, say A and B, are discussing a third person whom they have yet to meet, say G. A and B's respective groups of friends have varying opinions about what G is like. A's group of friends thinks G is introverted and pensive, while B's group of friends think G is extroverted and gregarious. A and B are both fairly convinced their group of friends are right, and argue about the personality traits of G, but they don't believe that the other is talking about a different non-existent person. A third person, say C, doesn't know anything about the personality type of G, but nonetheless C believes that G exists merely because C has heard of G (or whatever reason you like). I realize this analogy isn't perfect, but I hope it does something to point out why it may be so difficult to simply get people to refer to their respective gods in a more specific manner.

As an aside, as a fellow activist against the violation of Church and State, and someone who would generally like to see religiosity diminished in the public sphere, I'd point out that I don't think you're doing yourself much of a dialectical favor by constantly referring to yourself as an "atheist." I take Sam Harris's lead and simply try to refrain from using the word entirely. For a better explanation of the reasoning than I could ever offer, I'll refer you to this - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ruy3CJJEIs

Stoehr said...

Andrew, I think you make some really interesting points. I consider myself to be an atheist as well, but will play devil's advocate for the time being.

I see no issue with "God" being a subjective term. Even if John ascribes different characteristics to his conception of God than Sally does, the notion of "God" still holds. No where (that I know of) does it say "there must be one definitive definition of God, which must be accepted by all theists." I guess my point is, so what? So what if the term God is a loose descriptor of some religiously-based mythical being? Maybe the Abrahamic religions purposefully left it up to each individual to conceive of their own depiction of God loosely based on book X that their religion follows, so that they could conjure up a more personally beneficial creator/ruler/what have you.

Just a stream of thoughts, so there may be no legitimacy to what I'm saying, but I do think there is value in the subjectivity of how each individual relates to his/her God.

Maimuna said...

I see your point, but I'd like to point out that your job would become much harder when working within a specific religion's conception of god. Things you could easily say about the Anselmain god one can't get away so easily with a specific religion. If you where to take the Shinto religion, where spirits are in nature, animals, "gods" and "Gods", people, ghosts, etc, it wouldn't make sense to ask if God can create an unliftable stone.

Also, specificity might not help when certain theists really do hold the view that God really is a mysterious being whom we cannot fully comprehend. They would simply say that the true nature of -insert name here- is beyond our human intellect and language to fully comprehend or explain.

Aviva said...

I respect your idea, and I do think that a distinction between an old white guy with a beard and vengeance and a divine entity left open to personal interpretation would be beneficial for society as a whole. However, it seems to me that you fall into the same rhetorical trap that so many theists do in their attempt to "sell" their Abrahamic notion of G-d. The word "G-d" does carry a stigma that in many cases its speaker does not intend, which results in the confusion or discomfort of the listener. However, I do not think that redefining Abrahamic theology is the way to accomplish "converting" theists, as you seem to hope to do. The stigma carried by the word "G-d" does not "muddy" what the speaker is referring to because of its multitudinous interpretations, but because of its one, rigid interpretation of G-d as old guy with a beard. It seems to me that using different names for different religions' G-d only encourages that understanding (i.e. if one makes a distinction between the spiritual G-d of nature and the Judeo-Christian G-d of the bible, than while offering another conception of G-d, it also only further enforces the idea of G-d as a white guy).
The other major problem with your argument is that many (if not most) Jews, Christians, and Muslims do believe that they share a G-d. I am a theist, and I am incredibly uncomfortable with a distinction between Allah, YahWeh, and whatever you want to name a Christian G-d. That's no way to win me over.

Annalee Galston said...

This argument is on-point, in my opinion/ what of the greatest obstacles to having meaningful philosophical conversations about religion is that often times people like to interchange spirituality (a philosophical idea) with God (an institutionalized theological concept assigned specific properties). One cannot be spiritual disbelieve in institutionalized religion, and also believe in God simultaneously. One can be spiritual, believe gods, a god, or an idea of a Godlike creature. But God is a figure described by the very doctrine of religion, differentiated from religion to religion. It's akin to somebody saying that they believe in a book although they don't believe in the text; the conjunction in sentence tells you that there is a contradiction.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the term "mythology" used here, consider the Ryle quote on the web page. Einstein showed that gravity is not an attraction between objects but a fundamental transformation of space. So my question is: is elementary physics lying to kids?

Maimuna Lubega said...

@Michael Dean Hubert

Just for clarification, what do you mean when you say you would like to see religiosity diminished in public spaces? It means different things to different people and I just wanted to be clear.

I can understand American citizens wanting the Religious Right to have less of an influence on government and orchestrating certain pieces of legislation. On the other hand, there are countries in Europe that go so far as to ban expressions of religious affiliation in public. For instance, France banning the burqa on Muslim women and wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Sikhs can't wear turban, Christians students cannot cross necklaces, Muslims cannot wear headscarves or kufis, Jewish students cannot wear their skullcaps, etc. I see the second sort as suppression of individual liberties and discriminatory.

So what are you referring to when you say you would like to see the curtailment of religiousity in the public sphere?

Natalie N said...

This post reads as pretty label-centric, so I’ll go ahead and label myself as “confused and developing.” My aim at this point in my life is to examine the flaws in every approach, and at a later point in life, I’ll take an actual stance.

All three religions are referring to the same being, referred to as “God,” despite the fact that it bothers some people or makes arguing more difficult. It’s important that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all refer to the same God as Christianity views itself as the new and improved Judaism and Islam refers to itself as the new and improved Christianity. Each religion believes that the other two are wrong about their depictions of God. Just because three different groups attribute different details to God does not mean they are talking about three different things. If two of my classmates and I were asked to write down all of the properties we attribute to our professor, I’m sure they would all be different. That means our experiences and perceptions are different, not that we have three different professors. Maybe if it’s extremely integral to the argument then someone could say “God according to religion x.” In regards to “atheist activist” efforts with Christians, it could be helpful to point out the differences between the depictions of God in the Torah and the New Testament (and in efforts with Muslims the differences, between these two and the Quran). For example, if God is omniscient (and eternal) then it does not make sense that he would change his will, etc.

The emphasis on the importance of God in a given canonical text or religions as a whole also seems problematic. Not only between these religions, but also within each religion, people believe very different things about God. Many don’t respect the canonical texts as literal, binding, or as words of God (or their religion’s God or whatever). The field of Jewish studies, even among many religious Jews, is dominated by the documentary hypothesis, which attributes the writings of the Torah to different groups of people at different times so an argument based strictly on canonical text will likely not hold water. The Jewish studies field also widely promotes anti-essentialism, which says there is no such thing as a definition of Judaism or essential Jewish beliefs, so that wouldn’t work as a basis for the argument either.

My final thought is that this is an incredibly offensive post. To the author: You would be hard-pressed to be more condescending. Starting off any persuasive argument on religion by referring to religious beliefs as “mythologies” is terribly off-putting. If anyone you’re trying to convince isn’t offended when they finish reading sentence two, I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t become so by the time they finish sentence four. I’m admittedly undecided as to what my religious beliefs are, but I do believe in respecting other people and their opinions, which I perceive you blatantly fail to do in this post.

David Harms said...

I am glad to see this argument and discrepancy hit this blog. In a class that has individuals from various walks of life and differing interpretations of what 'God' or 'gods' or 'Spirit' is, this distinction seems necessary to find common ground for an objective answer to these questions of dialect and definition. However, I feel the biggest flaw in this post's argument is its neglect to see that many 'theists' (as a generality) of whichever Abrahamic religion they identify with, are comfortable with the uniformity in God, and that 'atheists' (again, a hasty clumping) a In opposition to the claim presented, to dismiss this potential association is to backtrack even further. It seems legitimate to imagine a human quality that we all intuitively share of an essence that is 'higher,' even within other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, other polytheistic religions, etc. Although a religion's God/gods may have differing qualities or attributes, it seems negligent to immediately resort to an ideology that there is little common ground between gods and the differing perceptions of God.

Michael Dean Hebert said...

Maimuna Lubega,

I was being a bit unclear when I said I'd like to see religiosity diminished in the public sphere, sorry. I would never advocate an enforced restriction on personal displays of religious beliefs (e.g. wearing a burqa, wearing a cross, etc.) so long as the display does not infringe on other's freedoms (and I think such occasions are few and far between). Should a bill presenting such a ban ever be raised in congress I would be as passionate an advocate against it as I am an advocate for the separation of church and state. What I meant to say when I said I'd like to see religiosity diminished in the public sphere was simply to say that I'd like to see, broadly, people begin to give up their religious beliefs in favor of an intellectual agnosticism. That is, a willingness to accept that due to the unfalsifiable nature of religious claims they cannot be disproved, but to accept further that faith is not a means to truth. Again, I'd never advocate direct legal bans on religious expression in public, so long as such expressions do not infringe on other's rights.

Anonymous said...

Even if faith ( cf. belief ) accomplished nothing more than to console worry and doubt, I would have to agree that a condescending wish to absolve believers their right to this truth is quite intellectually agnostic.

Anonymous said...

A great contemporary analytic philosopher, Thomas Nagle, contends that scepticism is unassailable and that we should proceed under a cloud of it. What he means is: Begin with the weakest claim necessary to make your point.