Friday, September 12, 2008

Redefining God

There is something I have been thinking about as of late, mainly at Hugo's provocation. Hugo has been discussing the distinction between the God of Faith and the God of Philosophers. Excuse the nonstandard language for a moment. The God of Faith is that which gives us religious experience. The God of Philosophers is the god for which we would seek proof. The question is, can we have one without the other? Can we have spirituality (the God of Faith) without having to believe in all that weird stuff about spirits (the God of Philosophy)? Here are my rambling thoughts on the question.

I have two conflicting opinions about Hugo's efforts.

On the one hand, I agree with Hugo. Yes, we can separate out the God of Faith and the God of Philosophers. You can simultaneously be an atheist and be religious. Really, it's one of the conclusions of atheism. God doesn't exist. Religion and religious experiences do. Therefore, religion and religious experiences do not require God. So if religion (or at least part of it) is such a great thing, why not just participate in it, even if you don't have any religious beliefs? You don't really need all the woo-woo about objectively existing souls, divinity, sin and whatever, no more than you need to believe the 9/11 truth movement to be unhappy with the Bush administration.

On the other hand, I share the atheosphere's distrust of people who try to redefine God or spirituality. Why would you even bother unless you were trying to pull some dirty trick on us? First you introduce God as some sort of harmless concept like "nature", "the emergent principle", "love" or "the source of morals". Then you give God a bunch of new attributes, like "good", "fundamental", "existent", "mysterious", or in the worst cases, "conscious". In the final stages, you accuse atheists of not believing in love, and then pray that they will see the light. Well, it doesn't have to happen exactly like that, but it frequently does.

Things get a bit muddled up from here on, because there are various senses in which I can "agree with", "accept" or "respect" Hugo's views. Now, obviously, I respect Hugo in the sense that I respect any human being. I also obviously disagree with him, in the sense that it is wildly unlikely that there is anyone I can always agree with on every detail. Much breath is wasted on these two truisms, when what we really care about is the meaty middle.

I can say that I disagree with Hugo in the sense that I would never bother trying to separate the two "Gods", not for my own benefit. I, personally, do not really care about the God of Faith (ie spirituality). I don't even understand why I'm supposed to strive for that sort of thing. Is it in the same sense that I'm supposed to enjoy giant frat rush parties, because, you know, that's what all normal, well-adjusted college students like? Man, whatever.

But in what sense can I agree with Hugo? To what degree do I accept this view as a viable option in the universe of personal philosophies? One that I might hold myself in an alternate universe?

The central problem here is an attempt to redefine God and other religious terms. Such an effort is made difficult by all sorts of pitfalls. There are all sorts of connotations to the words. This is especially true of "God". As soon as you've said the word, you're implicitly talking about a god that is good, a god that is transcendentally important, a god that objectively exists, a god that is conscious and pays attention to human affairs. Most of these connotations remain in the mind until you explicitly deny them; some still remain afterwards. For instance, take Stuart Kauffman's idea of God as the emergent principle, or the creativity in nature. That's great and all, in a vacuous sort of way, but he's implicitly elevated the importance of the emergent principle, as if it were some sort of fundamental mode of nature. Oh, come now. What's next, will we declare the Higg's Boson to be the God Particle, because particle physics doesn't already get a disproportionate amount of attention? Oh, wait, someone already did that, and we already dislike him for it.

The point is that if you're not very careful, you could end up saying something you don't want to say. Or worse, you could end up saying something that you did want to say. You know, encoding your own assumptions and biases into the definition, so that you can later push them onto other people without realizing it.

In one sense, I disagree with any attempts to redefine God, because it's a difficult task to do right, and I have little motivation to do it. But Hugo has different motivations and priorities--on a certain level, I accept that. If I understand correctly, his primary motivation is to "build bridges".

Mentally, I am comparing Hugo's efforts to redefine God to the things I learned about God in my Catholic high school. In my high school, we were taught that there are many descriptions of god. Sometimes god is a mother, sometimes a father, sometimes a gardener, sometimes love, sometimes the infinite, etc. The point is that these are all different understandings or aspects of the same thing. The various descriptions are at once all correct, and yet incorrect. So it goes with every description of God. Each one gives a new insight into God, but none is complete, as no description of God can ever be complete.

What like about Hugo's attempts to redefine God, as opposed to my Catholic upbringing, is that he has the right attitude about definitions. Namely, he takes a label agnostic approach (I have been meaning to write an essay to the same effect since forever, but this is as close as I've gotten). That means he is fluid with definitions. For instance, it is completely irrelevant whether "Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist" is a true or false statement. What matters is what sense is it true, and what sense is it false?

He takes the same approach to redefining God. These definitions are not so much a tool to understand God as they are a tool to understand humans and religion. I think that's great. Furthermore, Hugo treats these definitions as a little experiment, something we can let go of if it turns out badly. A definition is a bit like a lens. If we stick to a single lens, our view can be distorted. But if we switch around the lenses occasionally, we can get multiple perspectives of the same reality. Contrast with my Catholic education. Not only is each description of God a new insight into God (rather than ourselves), the insights are considered to be cumulative. It's like we're supposed to put on all the lenses all at once, and declare the result to be the closest possible description of the ineffable. The insights are also cumulative with other definitions of god--the god of the Old Testament, the New Testament, of prayers, of devotion, etc. This is truly a semantic disaster, a bunch of definitions that have been all wrapped up together into a giant conflation of ideas. They cannot let go of the definitions. I mean, really let go of the definitions, to the point that, in some sense, God doesn't really exist, or God isn't really good.

Actually, I rather like this standard. The best redefinition of God (or perhaps any redefinition) is the one we are willing to let go of.