(Note: Since I am an American raised in the Christian faith, my examples of belief are taken from American Christianity, since that’s what I know best.)
From time to time, I am going to highlight debates that just seem pointless to me. Let’s start with one that has caused plenty of misery for thousands of years. Does God exist? I may be wrong, but I’ve maintained for a very long time that people’s ideas and reactions to the notion of a supreme being who lives somewhere out there beyond the universe is largely formed by psychological needs, and psychological needs are tricky things to take away from others.
For instance, some people were born into extremely abusive religious communities or lived in families that used religion as a means of control. They were taught to believe in a vengeful, angry, judgmental God who was out to whack them for any transgression, a God who terrified them. They were basically made to feel horrible about themselves (for some, this was especially true if they happened to be female, or happened to be attracted to members of the same sex). No wonder as soon as they were old enough to start recognizing many of the contradictions associated with this sort of religion (e.g. God is your father and loves you more than anyone has ever loved you but will have no problem tossing you in a raging fire for all eternity if you lose your virginity before you get married, which completely contradicts our understanding of a truly loving father, who would more likely throw himself in a fire before his own child), they might choose to reject God and religion altogether. I don’t see any reason to try to convince them to believe in God again.
Others might be raised with no religion or introduction to God at all, and they are perfectly happy having no God or religion in their lives. Or maybe they were raised with religion and God but realized they just can’t believe in God, because it makes no sense to them to do so. I see no reason to rock their boats, to insist they believe in God, just because throughout history, men have interpreted ancient documents (many of which are missing parts) as saying God wants us all to save others by making sure they believe in and worship God, and if we don’t, yet again, we are doomed to damnation and hellfire. I suppose God could be that judgmental God, ready to throw sinners and nonbelievers into the fire, but my guess is that if that God exists, we’re all doomed, so there’s no point in “saving” nonbelievers.
Still others find comfort in believing in God. For whatever reason, believing in God makes sense to them, gives meaning to their lives, and provides them with feelings of peace and joy, or encourages them to fight for justice. Again, I see no reason to take this away from them just because there’s a possibility they’re wrong, that God doesn’t exist.
Belief in God or non-belief in God, as far as I’m concerned, are neither in and of themselves “good” or “bad”, nor do they make it possible to label certain people “good” or “bad”. I only find them problematic when they’re damaging. If someone is paralyzed by the fear of going to hell, well, then there’s a problem. If someone is being abused in the name of God, that’s wrong. If someone is being abused in the name of no God, that’s wrong, too.
I’ve observed that the abuse tends to come when people confuse belief in God with religion. The two are not synonymous. One can believe in God and have no religious affiliation whatsoever (which, according to recent Pew reports, many Americans do). And one can belong to a religious organization without believing in God (as might a spouse who attends to support the other spouse). Religions are human constructs designed to bring people together in a shared understanding of God, to learn what God’s will for them might be, and to worship God. They typically include specific rites and rituals that have been handed down for generations.
Belief in God is nothing more than deciding you do or don’t believe in a supreme being we can’t fully understand or fathom. Full disclosure here: this minister’s wife believes in God and is affiliated with a church. I’m lucky enough to have belonged to the sorts of churches all my life that don’t require me to believe any specific thing about God in order to be accepted, or that make me feel bad about myself, or that preach anything much more than the message of love. I wouldn’t be able to affiliate myself with any other sort of church, so if my only choice were to attend a church that was more dogmatic, I’d stop going, I wouldn’t stop believing in God. Church doesn’t make me believe in God.
The reason I find this a pointless debate is that we human beings can neither definitively prove God does or doesn’t exist. I know fundamentalists on both sides of the debate who are convinced they can, convinced they have the arguments to prove what they believe, and are determined to change others’ minds. Maybe, sometimes, they have superficial success, but, really, it’s pretty impossible to make someone believe something they don’t. This is why it’s a belief and not a fact.
I discussed facts in my first blog post. Let’s take a look at beliefs now. If I believe the ice cream at one of our local ice cream parlors is better than it is at another, and I’ve eaten at both of them enough times to be familiar with them, no one is going to be able to get me to believe otherwise. There is no right or wrong in my belief. Some beliefs can be proven wrong, of course. For instance, if I insist (for some bizarre reason) my favorite place serves blueberry ice cream, and a friend of mine says, “You must be confused. They’ve never served blueberry ice cream,” and then we go there to discover they’ve never had blueberry ice cream on the menu, well, then, that’s a fact, and I just happened to have my facts wrong. Basically, if you can prove something, it’s a fact. If you can’t, it’s a belief.
I don’t mean to trivialize belief in God, but belief in God is not so different from any other belief, which means it could, ultimately, prove to be either right or wrong if some facts come along to prove it one way or another. But my belief (and it’s just a belief, so I doubt you’re going to change my mind) is that no facts will ever come along that enable humans to prove God exists or doesn’t. I just don’t think we have the capability to do so. When someone tells me God doesn’t exist because we have no scientific evidence, I like to consider the sea horse.
One could use any number of examples, but I like the sea horse, because I like to scuba dive, and I love sea horses. As any scuba diver can tell you, they are elusive little creatures. I have seen them but rarely. They’re tiny, and they like to hang out in crevices in coral reefs, and one needs to move very slowly, paying close attention to spot them. Probably more sea horses see scuba divers than scuba divers see them, but my guess is that the number of sea horses who actually encounter divers is pretty small. When they do, their glimpse of a scuba diver tells them nothing about what humans really are. For starters, we look like creatures who can breathe under water.
Now, let’s consider that sea horse who happened to run into me in Bonaire one day. Perhaps she raced back to her family and friends to tell them all about the monster she saw swimming by. My guess is they didn’t believe her “tall tale”. I don’t blame them. Then one of them said to her, “I don’t believe you, but, you know, I’m open-minded. Prove to me this monster exists.”
That sea horse could no more prove I exist than she could suddenly sprout wings and fly. She and her companions have no idea that anything exists above water, which is where I was by then. They will never be able to prove anything exists above water. They will never be able to prove humans exist, that we are creatures who don’t live under water. This doesn’t mean we don’t exist.
I know I’m anthropomorphizing here, but I hope you get my point. I just don’t believe human beings have all the answers or will, one day, have all the answers. I think that when it comes to God, we’re like sea horses trying to prove humans exist. Despite our so-called big brains, we just don’t have the ability to do it and never will. For whatever reason, in this life, on this planet, we’re stuck without facts and with nothing more than belief when it comes to God. Others of you might think humans do, or will, have all the answers. We will either one day definitively prove God does exist or God doesn’t exist. Just as you’re not going to change my mind, I’m not going to change yours.
So, you see, in my book, if you tell me you believe in God, that’s just fine with me. If you tell me you don’t believe in God, that’s just fine, too. Just don’t try to make me believe exactly what you believe about God or try to convince me God doesn’t exist (at this point in time, I’ve probably already heard whatever argument you’re going to give me, more than once, and it hasn’t changed my mind. So you’re worried I’m going to hell? I’m not, and you can’t save me from it if I am. So you think I live in a fantasy world, believing in supernatural beings? I’d love to live in a fantasy world, which seems like much more fun than living in the real world). That sort of debate is nothing but a waste of my time. Now, debates about the harm religion (not belief in God but religion) has done versus the good it’s done? I’ll engage in that one with you, but only if you come into it understanding the difference between belief in God and religion, which means you won’t use them interchangeably.