It depends what you mean by “god”. It depends what you mean by “exist”.
This is really The Question, isn’t it?
Is there a right answer to all this messy “life” stuff? And is there somebody out there, sitting in judgement, waiting to see whether I (in the midst of an infinite number possible wrong answers) stumble upon it? Is there guidance, or are we just drifting through the universe making meaning as we go?
Proposition 1: God does exist
In one sense of the word “exist”, I can argue logically not only for the existence of God, but of a god who has the power to shape reality… and it is this: There exist persistent pattern(s) in the universe that have colonized our minds and structured our societies. Because we attribute “ultimate cause” to these patterns, they have tremendous power. These gods exist the same way that corporations exist… as structures that have sway over people’s actions, to which they devote their skills and talents, and for the persistence of which they are willing to make great sacrifice. For some reason, the New Atheists, while siding so vehemently with reason and scepticism, use appallingly sloppy arguments, and the question of the existence of god(s) slides over rapidly into the question of whether religion is a constructive or destructive force in our social organization. In this debate, the question of “God” is deferred or considered a closed question by both sides, and the entire argument becomes about the particular claims of a particular religion.
We, who live in the realm of ideas, like to think that we consider two measures of truth. One is correspondence, or how well the ideas correspond to observed “reality” (that is, the phenomenal world). The second is coherence, or how internally consistent a complete set of ideas is. Despite the claims of their true believers, religions tend not to hold up well under either of these rubrics. I’m not, however, about to sweep them away with that. Because they do provide something important which is frequently neglected by those of us who are dedicated to “rational” pursuits. Let us add two more measures of “truth” that people use implicitly: comfort and context.
When Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses, he didn’t mean that it made them stupid. He meant that it provided them with an illusion that allowed them to continue to function in the face of massive injustice and structural suffering. He did call for them to throw off this illusion and unite against the structures, which didn’t work out so well. (I believe that they (we) are unlikely to, for very good reasons related to comfort, context, and identity formation, but that’s another topic.)
What Marx’s analysis points at is the “purpose” of this kind of god, or at least at the mechanisms for its long term persistence and constant re-emergence.
We each need a set of stories that provide context and comfort for wherever we find ourselves in these arcane structures. We ask “why” a lot, particularly about our suffering. Structural analysis has some compelling answers, but tends to leave us, as agents, pretty much subject to the whims of the systems in power unless we can figure out how to recruit many thousands of other agents to act in concert with us. It tends not to give us many tools to cope with the extreme difficulty of getting the many thousands of other agents to stop working on whatever they are working on and work on what we have determined to be the root cause. And when we fail (as we often do), it frequently places the weight of that failure on us as individuals. (Can you say activist burn-out? Nihilism? Despair? Any of these sound familiar?) And that’s if we did have access to education in political science, cultural theory, or sociology at the post-secondary level. Most people, even with an education, are navigating a thorny and hostile world with a much emptier meaning-making tool box.
We Need Meaning Because…
How can I put this?
Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people.
We are insignificantly tiny in a universe that is vast. But in our own lives, we are all that there is.
We want to believe that there is meaning, so that we can maintain an illusion of control. We need to believe that there is something we can do to affect change, so we can feel that we are not so much dust in the wind. We want there to be something, some justice, some deep order that will make up for this.
Religion steps up to these problems with two aspects hugely in its favour:
1) The claim that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and/or, Karma, and/or There is an ordering principle to the universe that is just, but we cannot perceive/conceive of that form of justice. (see above)
2) Its most challenging truth-claims can only be tested by dying.
Where we (non-adherents) fail in this conversation is when we fail to recognize that religion is a social technology. It is afforded special status in our culture due to its claim to having access to ultimate cause. But it is not truly (in my model) a separate category of knowledge. It is, however, a category of knowledge that provides particular answers that must be addressed by anything that wishes to supplant it. Nihilism is a crappy substitute. So is any set of answers that logically mean, “Your life sucks, nobody cares, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Suck it up, buttercup.” Yet that’s what a lot of us are offering.
Proposition 2: God does not exist
This is the world I was raised in, the world of the rational sceptic. This is a world in which the level of cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain belief in an all-knowing, all-just, all-loving god is impossible in the face of the banality of evil and the observed indifference of planetary forces. Forces build up in the rocks beneath the ocean, the earth shifts to relieve the tension, and 160,000 people die. We suffer because we suffer. We exist because we exist. “Why?” is not a meaningful question, except in terms of proximate cause.
Let us consider the non-existence of deep order as one of a category of explanations that accept mystery, something uncontemplateable.
The question of the existence of god(s) takes place on the phenomenal level, when it is, in truth, a noumenal question. Facing the problems of suffering, natural disasters, and evil, we attempt to choose among the following possible explanations.
- There is an ordering principle (god/purpose/ultimate meaning) and…
- it is indifferent or
- we are too small to be noticed or
- it is giving us what we “need” for our personal development or
- we have complete control over it but lack the consciousness to exert that control or
- its purpose is completely beyond our ken and
- the suffering we experience is for some greater good. OR
- There is no ordering principle; the only meaning in the universe is what we impose. Or, rather, there is an ordering principle, but it is laid out in the governing laws and does not mean anything.
All we have as data to distinguish among these explanations is our experience of the phenomenal world. Despite constant declarations of certainty from all directions, the question of ultimate cause has not been resolved.
Proposition 3: Not Knowing
To conjugate the negation of the verb “To know”:
I don’t know.
You don’t know.
We don’t know.
Doubt is an active process. Not knowing is a state of being.
I don’t know. When the world around me demands certainty, and my existential angst seeks succour.
I don’t know. Confronting the lack of a coherent, comprehensive, correspondent meta narrative that also provides comfort and context is an act of bravery.
What if it is this: agnosticism is not intellectually or spiritually lazy. It is honest. (What if?)
Proposition 4: God does exist (2)
In another sense, I can argue for a completely different sort of god. There is a verse in the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna, having come to Arjuna in a moment of crisis, reveals himself in all his glory. He must first loan Arjuna his own capacities of perception so that he can endure the moment. I described it to my son thus: “Imagine suddenly being aware of the deep vastness of the universe, knowing every moment of star birth and death, every moment of living ecstasy, every moment of anger, suffering, agony, hatred, everything that ever was, is, or shall be.” His eyes became very large. “And Arjuna, faced with the overwhelming scale of reality, is-ness, said, ‘No, no! I changed my mind. You were right, it is too much!’”
When I was in India, the morning of Diwali in 2012, standing in the field outside the kitchen with my sweet, hot, milky tea in a stainless steel cup with no handle, wrapped in a blanket against the cooling November mornings, I watched the sun rise over the foothills of the Himalayas. I watched the growing disc until the light became unbearable and I had to look away. And this verse of the Gita came to mind. That evening, I watched from a distance as Swami Veda performed the sacrifices (milk and ghee) at the shrines. I watched him bring his very tired, very ill body out into the world to be the hope of this community, and I wept. And into my mind this time sprang the words, “We cannot look upon the face of God, so he gives us one another.”
At other moments, I have cast my eyes skywards, begging for things to be different. For the world to be kinder, for people to be more loving, for world peace and prosperity, for a sane relationship with technology. And the words came these times, “I only have your hands to work through.” That is, not my hands, but ours. If we want to move our world towards a god of love and compassion, we are the ones who have to make the change in ourselves. The gods that appear in the world are the ones we manifest.
This is still a universe that will eat us, and is perhaps still indifferent, at least on its vast scales, but it is one with which we can connect and communicate locally. It is a universe that is conscious because we are conscious**. It is a universe that suffers because we suffer. And it is a universe that desires great beauty because we desire great beauty.
It is probably disingenuous to call this “god”, but when I use deistic language (which I do), this is what I mean.
Proposition 5: It is not a relevant question
The Buddha refused to discuss metaphysical issues. They were not part of the practice, and their pursuit distracted one from the true goal of awakening.
I read this, and I had no idea what it meant. And then one day, I was in the middle of a conversation over lunch, and it all became clear. For a moment at least.
When we are in the present, truly in non-duality, it does not matter. The existence or non-existence of a creator, or a grand purpose, or divinity, is not relevant to the process of waking up. He was saying, in some sense, “I gave you the system. Work the system. Stop asking questions outside the system. They’re distracting you.”
As you can see, I haven’t gotten there yet.
Note: I do not mean the material realm. I include mystical experiences in the realm of phenomena. The gravest error I see scientists commit is to dismiss phenomena because either they have not experienced them directly, or because they cannot conceive of a mechanism. Mystical practices purport to provide a means of disintermediation between the self and the noumenal… they posit or narrate interpretations of a phenomenal realm that exists “closer” to the field/noumena. A large fraction of scientific investigation into consciousness relies on observations of the brain in such altered states, which at least has gotten us to the point of being able to acknowledge that these are real, physical phenomena. (As are hallucinations, so let us not mistake certainty for knowledge.) It is equally an error to mistake “mechanism” for “cause”. These mental states correspond to physical phenomenon, but it does not follow that the physical phenomenon causes the perception of reality.