the definition of God

There’s a trend among “spiritual-but-not-religious” people to say things like this: “In a new age, we need a new way of viewing God. The idea of God isn’t incompatible with modern science… it just needs to be updated. Why not view God as the sum total of the forces in the universe, so intricately and perfectly balanced that they were able to give rise to beings like us?”

I have a serious problem with this intellectual project.

Most of the time when we ask, “Does X exist?” we start with a concrete definition of X, and then we try to figure out whether there is anything in the world that fits that definition.

Aliens TalkingWhen we ask “Do aliens exist?” we start with the definition, “an ‘alien’ is a living thing, preferably intelligent, that evolved on another planet.” Then, we go about trying to figure out if we can find THINGS THAT MEET THAT DEFINITION.

What we DO NOT do is this: “I really would feel more comfortable with the world if we could just get everyone to agree that aliens exist. So let’s re-define ‘alien’ to mean ‘hunk of rock that came from another planet.’ Then, with that definition, we can all agree that aliens exist!”

To me, this is what the above project does with “God”. Instead of taking one (any) of the religious definitions of God that are out there, the author says, “I think it would be cool to be able to say that I believe in God, so I will re-define ‘God’ in a way that is acceptable to me.”

For the sake of clarity, can we at least start enumerating some of the millions of amorphous definitions that modern philosophy has sprouted, like snakes out of Medusa’s head?

I believe in God(7), defined as the unified set of forces in the universe that have produced reality as we know it.

I do not believe in God(23), defined as a single willful consciousness that interferes with history based on its desires and beliefs.

I believe in God(76), defined as the collective emergent force of human civilization that sometimes can be viewed as having causal power, even though it is not conscious.

I do not believe in God (96), defined as an invisible entity that listens to my thoughts when I am kneeling down with my hands clasped together.

And so on. At least, by beginning in this way, we could add some real clarity to the discussion. Otherwise, nobody ever knows what anyone MEANS when they say, “I believe in God.”



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  1. Renata Bernal says:

    Some people would say that not being able to give a definition of God is a very important part of any definition of God, inasmuch as God can’t be defined, explained or limited in any way. God, whose name cannot even be spoken, is beyond human comprehension.
    When ever there is talk of God it is also important to note that the word “believe” is always used in close association with the word God. That in itself points out that people talking about God to not use a scientific approach. People seek to find a sense of God through meditation, possibly through prayer.
    The God of Israel was a lawgiver. I guess that could be a definition, because in our society moral judgments and decisions are still made in the name of God, people still follow the Commandments.
    But I totally agree with you, it is downright silly to try to update the idea of God and thereby make it fashionable.

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