Focusing on god impedes the conversation

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a response to “God is a Question, Not an Answer”


As someone who is fascinated by religious belief, I wanted to love William Irwin’s essay last Saturday in the New York Times, God Is a Question, Not an Answer. Here’s why I didn’t.


What is the question?

Irwin ends his introduction with a lofty statement: “The question is permanent; answers are temporary. I live in the question.”

He refers to “the question” throughout his essay, but never defines it. Is he implying that god is the question of whether god exists?  Or is the “enduring” question to which he repeatedly refers a different question than, “Does god exist?”

Perhaps, “Why are we here?”

Or, “What is our purpose?”

Or some creative combination of these big existential questions?  

I still don’t know.

I, like Irwin, strive to “live in the question”. By that I mean that I seek to approach the world with curiosity and wonder, question what I think I know (as well as what others think they know), and challenge beliefs and ideas to which I am attached. But I certainly don’t try to live in the question of whether god exists.

The question of god’s existence is yoked by human biopsychology and history.  It emanates from a certain worldview, an outdated worldview in which deities loom large, rather than a clean slate. It is therefore not an open question; it doesn’t allow us to think as freely as possible. It is narrower than a big existential question can and should be. In my experience, focusing on god at all impedes rather than aids my ability to approach life with an open mind.

An honest atheist

Following his intro, Irwin begins the meat of his essay: “Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all – if not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then a God of some kind.”  

“Dwelling in a state of doubt, uncertainty, and openness about the existence of God,” he concludes the thought, “marks an honest approach to the question”.

I am too honest for my own good: if I had any doubts or uncertainty about the existence of the traditional Judeo-Christian god, I wouldn’t be shy about sharing them. The truth is that the idea that a humanlike mind, king, or father is in control of the universe seems laughably far-fetched to me.

Anthropomorphic god concepts are prevalent not because they’ve ever described reality particularly well but because the human mind is predisposed to them. Human psychology is such that we wish for a mind in the sky. We are not rational beings, and we desire such deities so strongly that our emotions overtake reason.

I wish that the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of god was less detached from my experience of life so that I could entertain the possibility that he exists. But I promise you, there is nothing to admit on my part in terms of doubts. I share Irwin’s fondness for humility and the “open-minded search for truth”, but I see the idea that an anthropomorphic being runs the world as unworthy of inclusion in an earnest search for truth.

As Irwin acknowledges, whether we’re talking about a personal god or some other kind greatly impacts the extent to which I doubt god’s existence. But if we’re not talking about a personal god, the word “god” is a poor tool for effective communication.

A god of some kind

Truly discussing the existence of god would require agreeing upon what we mean by god. Irwin seems to invite readers to define god any way they like. As many commenters noted, debating the existence of god is meaningless without defining god.

God can be defined as “love”, and then, of course, I agree: “god” does exist.  (I believe in love!)  But why not skip the linguistic acrobatics and state directly that love exists?   Not so divisive, for good reason. If god is defined as something uncontroversial, there is far less disagreement. But using the term “god” at all takes us away from meaningful conversation because it muddles communication.

Words are effective tools for communication insofar as they mean the same thing to different people. Words that have no consensus meaning are ineffective tools for actual communication between humans. Debating the existence of a concept that can be defined thousands of different ways is a waste of time and brainpower. I prefer to engage in discussion using words that have at least some potential to convey a shared meaning. The word god has no such potential.  

If we are interested in true communication regarding “the big questions” of the nature of life and existence, we would do better to use words with stronger consensus meanings to express our thoughts. It is impossible to understand “the other side” in discussions about god if we continue to use the word god in such discussions without agreement on its meaning.

I, an atheist, believe that religious traditions offer immense value. Irwin implies that embracing the ethical teachings of Christianity, the yogic practices of Hinduism, or the meditative techniques of Buddhism “may lead the nonbeliever to belief in god”. I see that these traditions greatly enhance many lives, but I fail to understand how they could lead adherents to believe that an anthropomorphic being runs the world.

You may or may not be referring to this man in the sky when you say “god”, but please acknowledge that many use the word god to do so. If you mean something more expansive, there are more effective words you could choose.

Making atheism constructive

Let’s have an actual conversation about the big existential questions. But in order to pull it off, we’ll have to be more creative with our language.  We’ll have to work harder at choosing words that facilitate rather than obfuscate true communication and understanding.  Atheism can be a path to this, for believers and skeptics alike, because it impels deep examination of accepted modes of thinking.  

Atheism is of course deconstructive in its nature, but the tearing down can leave in its wake a clearer path to discover new ways – an opportunity to build something stronger. I have a dream that atheism will garner a newfound respect and lead all humans into richer conversation about the nature of existence and the potential for our lives here on earth.

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