WHY I AM NOT AN ATHEIST
For an atheist, the matter is simple. There is no God. End of. For me, the real question does not revolve around whether or not there’s a God, because we first have to determine what we mean when we use a term like “God” and that opens up a whole can of worms which anyone in their right mind would be very reluctant to get into. No, the question for me is what is to be done about religion, which I believe can be summed up as the collective expression of ideas and beliefs with a supernatural content. In other words, the real question is the institutional manifestations of those beliefs and ideas, which believers are hardly ever encouraged to think through and because of that can be highly toxic and dangerous.
But let’s go back to the question of God. What do people mean when they use the term “God”? In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, they surely mean some out of reach entity who created and governs the world and expects us to behave in accordance with his commandments – as laid down in one or other of their holy books or scriptures. It is important that this being is separate from his own creation and creatures, otherwise, he could not be superior to them. And, if he cannot be superior to them, then he cannot boss them around by issuing commandments for them to obey or submit to. Simple as that. Whether or not such a being actually exists is not in my opinion the real issue, although I think, on the face of it, the likelihood is rather remote. However, one thing does seem quite clear to me. This “God” has many potential rivals for the title of “God”. For instance, uNkulumkulu, (In Bantu myth and legend.) the Great Spirit, Brahman-Atman, Dharma, Zeus, The Supreme Being of the French Revolution, Ahura Mazda, the “Deity” of the Enlightenment Deists who, once He has created the world, leaves it to its own devices, and the myriad other potential pretenders to the throne ready to take their place in our collective imagination and, in the process, boot out Jahweh, God the Father and Allah from their apparently secure and pre-eminent positions. After all, they all have as much claim as these to be called “God”. This “God” can also be a pantheistic God, a dualistic one, a trinity (or Trimurgi in Hinduism) – even an amalgam of lesser gods - sort of committee of gods, each one with a particular function.. It can also be the usurping Gnostic Demiurge or “That tribal / b in the Bible / who got so big for his boots / he thought he was God.”, Ein Sof in Jewish Kabbalah is another contender, as is the “immense intelligence” which Emerson thought we lay in the lap of. Hegel, might just have called his “God” “The Absolute”, Schopenhauer “Will”, Leibnitz “the Monad of Monads”, Plato “the Idea” and so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless and also bewildering; contemplating them seems to trigger a whole slew of speculations in which no final conclusion can ever be drawn. In the end, we just find ourselves going round and round in circles trying to arrive at a proper definition of whatever it is we have designated as “God” and getting nowhere in the process.
So when atheists say, “There is no God.” I just want to ask, “Which God are you talking about?” For me, the question is not whether this abstraction that we can give no concrete determinants to without tying ourselves up into all sorts of knots, actually exists or not, but what are we to do about institutions which pretend to speak in ‘God’s name – and, of course, it is always they and they alone who speak in ‘God’s’ name. What these institutions actually do is cut the debate about “God” off at a certain arbitrary point, so they can prevent it slipping out of their grasp. It’s a bit like a mathematician cutting Pi off at a certain arbitrary point in its progress towards infinity in order to fit it into his or her finite algorithmic equations. This, of course, is what all religions do to make the concept of “God” serviceable to their own needs. Thus we are no longer encouraged to think through all the possibilities inherent in the idea until we arrive at our own conclusions – which, by the way, we may reject a couple of days later – but instead have to accept what they say about it, along with all the phoney ‘sacred’ texts they use to shut down further debate on the question. Religion, therefore, is the problem, not an abstraction like God, which can be argued about from here to eternity without anyone arriving at any definite or long-lasting conclusions. And that’s why I think the question about “God” which atheists ask and also pretend to have the answer to is something of a red-herring.
Of course, atheists may not form a coherent or homogeneous group, just like individual Christians or Muslims might also not form a coherent or homogeneous group. The New Atheists, of whom Richard Dawkins is a spokesman, obviously do seem to form a coherent and somewhat homogeneous group. And there is nothing wrong with that as long as it helps them oppose organised religion, especially in its most toxic forms. But they don’t just do this. They also make a big issue of the existence – or not - of “God” and seem to think that that is central to their quest to undermine religion. They never consider the possibility that it is totally pointless to be opposed to something that one can say nothing about. And therefore any idea that they do have about Him/Her/It, etcetera has to be taken from the religions whose “God” they say they deny in order for them to make progress. That is to say, that the “God” whose existence they deny has the shape given ‘Him’ by this or that organised religion and is therefore hardly representative of the idea of "God" as a whole. In other words, their focus is wrong. What they are actually arguing about and pretending to know something about is Kant’s “unknowable thing-in-itself”, which may – or may not – be nothing at all, depending perhaps on what side of the bed you got out of that morning.
When it comes to the existence of “God” or any questions concerning the nature of ultimate reality, surely the jury is out. “God” is like Schrodinger’s Cat – He/She/It/Thou/They/We/You/Zero/Wotever exists and doesn’t exist at the same time because we haven’t yet opened the box and precipitated the collapse of the wave-function by means of which we might be able to decide. In other words, “God” exists in some kind of epistemological limbo, like Schrodinger’s poor cat, waiting for someone to open the box – or just take the money and run.
I am playing around with these possibilities because I want to show – paradoxically – how impossible it is in the end to arrive at any kind of certainty regarding ultimate questions, even though many atheists talk as if they knew all the answers. Sky-Fairy, Imaginary Friend, Flying Spaghetti Monster and so on. Do any of these terms even get close? Not only can these things not be proved, they cannot even really be delineated. Language comes to a grinding halt every time you try to discuss the question or even create a framework in which to debate it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all speculation should end. Such speculation may be fun, or may be an important plank in our own quest for sanity, it may even be a good subject for the myth-making powers of the poet – but, hey, let’s get a sense of proportion here and not imagine that what we are talking about is something of substance, something people should worship or go out of their way to deny.
So excuse me if I refuse the label of atheist. It is not that I would identify with theists or deists or anything as wishy-washy as an agnostic, but I do believe that atheists ask all the wrong questions. They talk too much about “God” and not enough about religion, not enough, in other words, about how human institutions have arrogated to themselves the right to speak in the name of a ‘God’ that neither they nor the atheists who deny this ‘God’ are able to say anything intelligible about.