if I were God

In response to yesterday’s post, Ben asked whether I believe in God. His question reminded me of a service two years ago at church, during which three people with very different takes on the concept of God gave their personal answers to the question “What would you do if you were God?” I spoke, giving my atheist viewpoint; the other two speakers approached the subject differently, one as a more or less traditional theist, the other from a semi-pagan, God-as-creator-and-encompassing force belief structure. It was an extremely interesting morning. Following are my comments from that service. 

Some of you have undoubtedly read the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Its slightly surreal pages feature many strange events and creatures, among them the Babel fish: a small, yellow, leechlike fish that feeds on surrounding brainwave energy. If you stick one of these fish in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.

The book says that “it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the NON-existence of God. The argument goes like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’ ‘But,’ says Man, ‘The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ ‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.”

Along similar logical lines, my talk this morning could be extremely brief. You see, I don’t believe in a God, or in many gods, or goddesses, or spiritual powers, beings, or entities of any sort. So… if I were God, then there would be no God: by my own definition, I wouldn’t exist. Poof! I would disappear in a puff of logic.

But before I vanish, it’s interesting to contemplate my world. A world that has no God … that knows no God … that expects no God … that needs no God. A world whose citizens do not believe in, pray to, blame, praise, swear by, lean on, go to war in the name of, or even consider the possibility of a higher power.

GK Chesterton said, “If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.” To be an atheist requires that there be a concept of a God that the atheist doesn’t believe in. But my world would have no concept of a God; thus it would be populated not by atheists but by people who are entirely humanist.

There are those who claim that without the looming threat of hell or the glittering promise of heaven, all of humanity would run amuck in the streets, looting and murdering at random. However, neither that threat nor that promise apply to me or to millions of other atheist, agnostic, nondeist, and unchurched people in our current reality, but the vast majority of us are loving, caring human beings. Given a reality whose basis rests on the wellbeing of humanity rather than the dictates of any of a variety of supreme beings, I believe that society would be just fine.

True, there would be no churches: we wouldn’t be divided into Presbyterians, Jews, Baptists, Methodists, Muslims, UUs, and so on. But we’re a social species, and like would find alternate ways and means to gather with like: Perhaps instead of forming groups based on the way they worshiped or believed, people would coalesce around varying ideas of how best to serve the rest of humanity. My religion might focus on feeding the hungry, and your religion might focus on housing the homeless.

Unfortunately, people don’t always make decisions that are good, or wise, or considerate. There would still be war, based on ethnicity or geographic boundaries or economic factors or warped leadership. But neither side’s generals would be claiming that God was on their side; they would have to justify their bloodshed in other terms.

Most important, in my opinion, would be the fact that people would take complete responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Nothing would be “God’s will.” Things would happen—as a result of a conscious act, or a geological disaster, or a lack of foresight, or illness, or whatever. Things would happen, and people would cope, adjust, and move on.

Of course, people like guidelines. For millennia, millions have followed the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and similar dictates from other holy works. So, before vanishing into my cloud of logic, I would offer the following list, which is a modification and combination of some things I’ve read. I’d imprint these nine suggestions into the minds of humanity for their contemplation:

  1. You have only one life; use it wisely.
  2. You have only one Earth; treat it kindly.
  3. Remember that you are responsible for your actions, good and bad. Act with prudence and thought.
  4. Know yourself.
  5. Remember that you are an individual with your own capacities, goals, and needs.
  6. Don’t murder, hurt or cheat people unless they are putting you or your loved ones in danger.
  7. Respect others, and don’t create unnecessary antagonism. Compassion and good will are usually easier than hostility.
  8. Don’t lie to other people, but rather stand up for the truth.
  9. Life your life to the fullest. Don’t make the world your personal hell: If there is a heaven, it has to be here on Earth.
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11 responses to “if I were God

  1. Your response to Ben was very well thought out. I believe you did an excellent job articulating your thoughts and beliefs. It is an interesting thought, would the world be better off if no one had a belief of a god, or is it better because people do have a belief of god.
    I believe that the world as a whole would be much better off if people did not believe that god is an external entity.

  2. GK Chesterton said, “If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.”

    Coincidentally, I today posted on the irritation I feel at describing myself as an atheist. I conclude that I am an atheist only when I have to be, i.e. when confronted by religious belief, but not otherwise. I am then neither an atheist nor not an atheist.

    The old chestnut beloved of religious believers that “Without God there would be no morality” simply doesn’t stand up. Every society, community, tribe or group has a moral code: of necessity, otherwise it could not cohere as a group. Religions change but moral codes, give or take a few details (e.g. monogyny v polygyny v polyandry), remain and are strikingly similar across time and geography, showing that morality precedes religion, not the other way about.

  3. I believe that the world as a whole would be much better off if people did not believe that god is an external entity.

    This is the basis of the philosophy (theology?) of the Sea of Faith movement.

    Personally, I believe that “God as a human construct” is hardly less undesirable than the Old Gentleman with the White Beard.

  4. Chesterton nailed it, thus I am a nothing. Not an atheist, not a theist, not a believer, just nothing. Wabi Sabi tells me nothing is perfect, nothing is even finished, nothing is forever.

  5. One thing is certain, Thad, and that is that you are not a nothing. At the very least you are yourself and that is something.

    The paradox is that in saying what you are not, you are inevitably defining what you are. “Not atheist” is as much a defining trait as “atheist”.

    Acceptance of transience necessarily entrains the existence of that which is transient and which is something since it has at least one quality (transience).

    It is not that easy to escape the baggage of reality.

  6. I hesitate to mention this: but if you were God, I suspect you would not disappear. On the contrary, you’d have empirical proof that God existed, and thus would believe in God. Unless a) your belief in there not being a God has more to do with your desire for there not to be a God and b) you think reality is controlled by belief.

  7. Thud…
    “b) you think reality is controlled by belief.”

    Bingo. Although I am a Christian, I’ve actually had my moments where I wonder if I have completely made up everything around me to suit a belief system that supports belief in God. Pretty weird and, in my opinion, self-serving and self-agrandizing to think that way. When it comes right down to it, I believe that God does, in fact, exist whether anyone believes in God or not.

    Tiffany, very interesting post!

  8. Interestingly, your list of advice should not in any way preclude a belief in Jesus or Buddha. Personally, I don’t care so much about what people believe, but very much about how that belief makes them act. And the history of the world is that most belief – and even non-belief – can be perverted. I loved Chesterton’s quote – thanks.

  9. The relationship between perception and reality is very complex. No one has yet got to the bottom of it. We harp on all the time about “telling the truth” but the “truth” (when by this we mean the exact nature of reality) is almost impossible to discern.

    We make the situation worse by inventing all kinds of entities, forces and influences for whose existence there is absolutely no evidence and then we cling to these with misguided stubbornness foolishly validated by “faith”. If we really care about “truth”, then we really are our own worst enemies.

    What we believe may not alter reality (though particle physicists are beginning to wonder about this) but since our perceptions of reality are mitigated by what we believe, our beliefs are of supreme importance. We owe it to ourselves to keep our beliefs as lean and clean as we can, as free as possible from a clutter of irrational nonsense that prevents clear vision.

    We cling to our familiar myths and inventions for comfort. There is nothing comfortable or comforting about reality. It takes courage to 0confront reality. Few people have enough courage. Most insulate themselves from it like kids hiding behind the sofa during a scary TV show. That is why comforting myths continue to flourish and will do for the foreseeable future.

  10. Very interesting thoughts. Being an atheist myself, I do often wonder what would happen were there no belief in the remote chance that there is a heaven or hell (as, the possibility of that is very remote).

    With that said, I also wonder how, in religions that believe in predetermined destiny (such as the Calvinists) manage to not “run amuck in the streets, murdering, raping, and pillaging”.

    It’s also hard to not observe the world and its history and take notice to how in our vast history, the amount of wars and injustices that have taken place simply because of this abstract idea of what god is. How countries have fought to conquer and de-throne each other simply because they could not agree on which concept of “god” was the correct one, how people have enslaved each other because they shared a different set of beliefs.

    With that said, I will say this – it is somewhat envy inducing to see the hope that is instilled in those that believe in, like truly believe in a god. Just seeing someone who may have had the worst lot in life possible, knowing that they just KNOW they’ll be fine due to this abstract idea, I would sometimes like to feel that. Or to at least know what it feels like.

    It’s also interesting that you tied your explanation/argument in with Hitchhiker’s, as I myself made an entry a while back where I used Karl Marx as the basis of my argument about religion.

  11. Something to think about: I think most people would generally agree with your 8 points. However, that’s an interesting observation — why? It begs the question of where does this “common ground” of ethic come from? It can’t come from culture, because who’s culture are you going to use as a standard? It can’t come from personal feeling/choice, because who’s feelings/choice are the standard? It can’t come from pure logic, because anything can be supported by logic IF you can accept the initial premises.

    I guess the point is that the alternative explanations (pragmatism, socio-behavioral, feelings, etc.) seem to fall quite short of actually explaining the “common moral ethic” that pervades most of our world. Generally speaking, people know what’s right. We don’t always choose to do it, but we know.

    I think the evidence seems to point to something deeper and outside of ourselves. Otherwise, where else would a standard of ethics come from?

    C.

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