Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bad metaphors maintain the God delusion

In God Doesn't; We Do, I make the case that God is a bad metaphor, a fact I mentioned when I wrote about the Higgs boson, a.k.a. "God particle," a few weeks ago. There, I mentioned that it would almost be a fun short book to write titled Bad Metaphors Called God, an idea I still entertain from time to time. After thinking about it some today, it seems rather apparent that the entire God delusion, as Richard Dawkins eloquently dubbed it, is massively supported--even relies upon--this bad-metaphor nature of the term "God."

The fourth chapter of God Doesn't; We Do, titled "Defining God," really aims to hone in on the central issue behind the bad-metaphor phenomenon. Have you ever heard a good definition for God? I haven't, and I've looked. Further, if you ask ten people to give you a functional definition of God, how many identical definitions do you think you'd get? Surely if you asked close friends in a single church community, you might get seven or eight pretty similar answers, but if you ask across various faiths, or even just across people of different levels of education or in different sociopolitical situations, my expectation is that you wouldn't get more than two or three similar definitions, none the same.

Of course, this is what causes there to be so many religions and so many denominations within religions (Christianity should have topped 40,000 distinct denominations sometime this year!). This is also what causes us to have so many variations on ideas about God, varying from the wonder of nature itself to wistful ideas of a higher power or invisible arbiter all the way to a very specific man living on a very specific planet called Kolob. "Defining God" in God Doesn't is all about elaborating on this enormous variation and clarifying what belief structures correspond to which definition of God.

As it turns out, and as is actually obvious, it is just about impossible to have a meaningful discussion of a topic without having a clear definition of it. There is no clear definition available for God, and, indeed, the more clear the definition of God, the more easily that God can be dismissed (take Zeus for instance, quite clearly defined and easily dismissed, rather like Yahweh). As should be equally obvious, religious believers, whatever they pretend, do not actually want to have a clear discussion about God. This is because the God delusion literally rests upon a lack of clarity that allows billions of people to talk about different concepts under the same name, adding a false perception of unity of belief.

In the case of Christianity, for example, there are over 40,000 denominations. That's at least 40,000 different functional definitions of God through scripture, doctrine, dogma, exegesis, and ideology. When all of these groups identify themselves as Christian, they add a lot of weight to Christianity as an entity, even if their belief structures can be as completely different as extreme left-wing social liberals, heavily populated in the United States by the "Christian Left," and extreme right-wing social conservatives, heavily populated in the U.S. by the "Religious Right." Not surprisingly, of course, these two groups see (read: define) both God and the central figure of Christianity, Jesus, completely differently--and yet both identify with the same terms, God, Jesus, Christianity, rendering those bad terms if the goal of communication can be considered primarily to convey ideas clearly.

The reason I say that this problem is a case of a bad metaphor instead of an issue with terminology is because just as the term "God" doesn't have a clear definition, it is a term that is used to represent many different concepts. For instance, while meditating, some people have a profound experience of "oneness" with everything (which can actually be identified now with experiencing the world via the right hemisphere of the brain with the left hemisphere less active, per the finding of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor). Some of these people (perhaps including Augustine) identify this experience with "God." Certainly, Eastern mystics haven't missed that opportunity when dealing with Westerners, and New Agers here in the West haven't failed to make the same identification on their own. Are those people, though, talking about the same "God" as, let's say, the Westboro Baptist Church, that being the "God" who "hates fags"? Are they talking about the same "God" as Allah to Muslim extremists? To Muslim moderates? Is it the same "God" as the super-orthodox Jews see as likely to be severely displeased (to what end?) if someone eats a bacon cheeseburger or if a woman wears a spaghetti-strap top on a hot summer's day?

The answer to all of those questions has to be given as "yes and no." To say "no" is offensive, particularly to a strict monotheist who sees God as a monolithic concept, however many definitions He must satisfy--even if some of those are neurological experiences brought on by drugs like entheogens. To say "yes" is also offensive, at least to strict monotheists who know they worship and angry and jealous God, like the God partially defined by the Bible and the Qur'an. This prevarication is required, and however much controversy and argumentation it causes, it is actually preferred to nailing down a real definition. Of course, each faith is perfectly at the ready to attack each other faith's definition as a "false god" at precisely the moment it becomes threatening to the belief at hand.

Consider, though, the effect that this phenomenon has. A very large number of people, indeed a significant proportion of the population in highly religious nations like the United States, all go around talking about their ideas about "God." There is a huge variety in what is meant by this term, but to a listener's ears, there is none. If for me, in fact, God means the sense of beauty that I get when I see something like the shimmer of moon off the surface of a rippling lake, when I say, "God makes me feel so good about life," an evangelical Christian is going to hear something entirely different from the idea I was actually conveying. The same is true in reverse. In each case, for whatever social cohesion it offers the two of us, the price we pay is that our attachment to our own particular metaphor, each called "God," can be strengthened. This supports the God delusion.

On the other hand, consider what would happen if each disparate "God" was carefully defined and was given a unique name. When I talk about Natural Beauty giving me a good feeling about life, my evangelical friend may or may not agree with me, but he is not going to think I am talking about his Baby Jesus. The same is true in reverse. Indeed, if my God-as-Beauty metaphor happens to coincide with a certain revulsion to Christian dogmas, the results would be quite a bit different. In any case, in this situation the God delusion gains no support. Furthermore, because of the intense reactions people tend to have about their religious beliefs, the kinds of discussions that either result in partitioning groups of people or that chip away at religious beliefs in general are likely to result from this accuracy in terminology. This is why I expect that the God delusion not only benefits from but depends upon bad metaphors called God.

As infidels, one of the best ways we can deal with this situation is both incredibly simple and incredibly benign. When someone mentions God to us, all we have to do is genuinely ask what they mean by "God." If asking them in a manner that reflects curiosity about their meaning, which invites them to talk about their beliefs candidly, it tends to be nonthreatening to theists to do so. While this is unlikely to get them to change their minds about their beliefs, particularly in the short term, it plants a valuable seed that they will have to wrestle with--the question of how God really is defined and the reality that not everyone agrees upon a definition. Once questions like that start, they tend to head in a good direction.

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