As an atheist I believe that all gods don’t exist. And yet, gods play an active and vital role in the lives and communities of believers. My atheist understanding of that role is that it subsists in language and culture. For believers who are able to make good use of their gods, that use is based on a close personal relationship with their deity and on the way that relationship promotes a mutual understanding and trust amongst a community of like-minded believers. As an atheist I can claim that these believers are deluded in terms of the correspondence of their beliefs to reality, and I can criticize the cultural aspects of their belief on any number of grounds, but, if I am willing to consider that believers derive some benefit from their belief, I have to admit that a god is central to that benefit. For that believer, for that community, that god has power, regardless of that god’s existence.
I have referred several times to non-existent gods without describing what they are. There are various ways to think of them, any of which may be helpful.
One approach is to think of God as a fictional character about Whom we have certain information, opinions and feelings. No rational grown up person believes that Harry Potter exists, but there might be close to a billion people who could tell you that he’s a child wizard with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, and tens of millions have considerable knowledge of his exploits and personality.
The personalities populating our cultural imagination manifest many forms of “existence.” Maybe a cursory review would be helpful:
- Characters in novels are generally invented by a single author; their appearance and personalities can be described in great detail; they can possess a complexity and fullness that sometimes makes them as real to us as actual people.
- Characters in fairy tales have been described with more or less detail (usually less) by many storytellers and authors over generations. Like gods, they act as a shared property of a whole culture, so their characteristics and meanings are subject to diverse interpretation and shifts over time.
- Legendary figures may or may not have existed as actual people at some point. Like fairy tale characters they form a shared cultural property.
- Historical figures and dead friends and relatives existed once as actual people. Our knowledge and feelings about them come to us through memory, written records and other artifacts. The previous existence of these people may be beyond doubt, but the correspondence between memory and reality is tenuous.
- Talking animals, science fiction aliens and comic book and cartoon characters stretch our concept of what it means to be a person to the point that we realize we can imbue anything, at least in our imaginations, with consciousness, intelligence, personality and intention.
- There are even characters like Harvey the invisible rabbit, who may or may not exist in the fictional universe of the play and movie by that name.
The point here is that we have a lot of choices about how we conceive of both real and imaginary entities. I think that atheists, agnostics and believers all have a tendency to feel that their conception of God must correspond to reality in order to be be valid and useful. I suggest that this tendency shows a failure of imagination, a failure to appreciate the freedom we have as thinking beings to construct our understanding of the universe, especially its metaphysical bits, in a way that serves and nurtures us.
I wrote more above about the types of fictional entities than might be necessary, but I particularly hope to encourage readers to feel as free in conceiving of God as they would feel in inventing a fictional character. Imagine you are writing a children’s book — if you can bring the same playfulness and inventiveness to your conception of God, you’ll possess a mental power and flexibility seldom enjoyed by believers, agnostics or atheists.
Next I’ll talk about gods as ideas. We have as much or more flexibility in the formulation of ideas as we do in the invention of fictional characters, but since ideas are explicitly made for the purpose of understanding and solving problems, they are meant to have some correspondence to reality (or to the problem they address, whatever that may be.) People may feel more constrained in the formulation of ideas than in the invention of fictions. For this reason, and also because God is not just an idea but a person, a thing that we talk to, I started by talking about fictional characters. The Greek gods are very much like fictional characters and have served as such in countless stories. Monotheistic gods are more like abstract ideas.
So let’s consider some of the monumental ideas that structure our understanding of the world: democracy, justice, love, the good, numbers, theories, algorithms, corporations, laws and legal systems. These have enormous power over our lives and our understanding of the world around us, but as ideas, they are human inventions, they have no material existence but exist only insofar as human language and human institutions make them manifest.
The material universe does not contain numbers, but our understanding of it would be impossible without numbers. And once numbers have been invented, they entail an inescapable logic, practically forcing us to accept that 2 + 2 = 4, at least within the confines of base ten and a Euclidean or Cartesian arrangement of real numbers.
The logic of ideas is, paradoxically, utterly ethereal and subject to human whim and invention, and, at the same time, for some ideas, more rigid than anything found in the empirical world. Maybe I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree, but I’ll also never see a tree as rigid as a syllogism.
For a person who understands algebra, there is only one correct set of solutions to an algebraic equation. For a person who understands the concept of democracy, questions regarding democracy will not allow only a single correct answer, but, as a socially shared concept, correct answers will fall within certain imprecise constraints. Similarly, we can have enormous freedom in the way we conceive of God, but not complete freedom. A doorknob can be God, but only if it is actually used as a god: if it is prayed to or worshipped in some way and treated as though it had god-like qualities. Otherwise it is just a doorknob.