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Is There a God?

(June 28, 2010)

From time to time, my readers send me interesting questions. Here is one of those questions along with my answer.

Hi there Harley.

I think this is great that you take time to answer questions from people all around =)

I've got one question for ya'. Is there a God? I'm a little confused and would like your advice. It's simple to say that there is no God, but my friend really believes in God and it's evident in his life that there is a divine power at work.

What do you think? Is there or is there not a God? If there is not, telling me your strongest points against there being a God so I could try to persuade my friend. Thanks Harley!

— Robert


On the one hand, the answer to your main question is simple: No, there is no God, your friend is believing in a myth. But there is a lot more to it than a simple yes and no answer. If there is no God, what is all the fuss about?

For example, there is no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy and no Santa Claus, but you don't see a lot of people arguing over their existence. God, of course, is more important. But still, if he doesn't exist, why is he so important?

The more you learn about religion, the more you can see how many of the ideas in which people believe don't seem to make sense. For example, in ancient times, it was common for people to believe in many gods. You may be familiar with the Greek gods and their Roman counterparts, of which there were many: Zeus (the Roman god being Jupiter), Poseidon (Neptune), Hades (Pluto), Aphrodite (Venus), Eros (Cupid), and so on. The Greeks and Romans had literally tens of different gods and goddesses, each with their own area of importance and responsibility. Many of these names have entered our language and are part of our culture. (Did you know that Nike was the Greek goddess of victory?)

To the Greeks and Romans (and to the Vikings and many other people), all of their gods and goddesses were real — as real as "God" is to many people around you right now. However, today, virtually no one believes in the gods of old. So why should we believe in the one all-powerful God? Isn't it possible that he, too, like the old, discredited gods, is just a figment of the collective imagination?

Before I answer this question, I want to point out that there is an enormous difference between believing in many gods, each of which is more or less an enhanced form of human being, and believing in one all-powerful God — the all-powerful master of the universe who created us in his image. The gods of yesterday were concrete, often more earthy than spiritual. Today's God is nothing if not spiritual, and he is elusive to the extreme.

The reason I point out this difference is that I want you to appreciate just how powerful the idea of the "one supreme God" really is. He can be adapted and modified repeatedly, over many, many generations, to change with the times. He can be all-knowing, all-powerful and ever-present. Indeed, the idea of "God" is so flexible and so rich as to be the axis for many different religions for billions of people.

The development of the idea of one "God" is one of the stunning cultural achievements of mankind.

For these reasons, the development of the idea of one "God" is one of the stunning cultural achievements of mankind. Although we take it for granted, you only have to study history and myths to appreciate its importance. The belief in a single, all-powerful deity has proven to be a subtle, powerful and enduring mythos; one that, in the long run, is much more satisfying and useful to people than a primitive collection of separate gods, and one that has done more to unify human culture than any other belief.

To a man of faith, is there only one God? The Bible, from the beginning, says yes, and makes the point forcefully:

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
(Exodus 20:3)

"For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God."
(Exodus: 34:14)

The Koran also asserts the uniqueness of God, from the very first verse:

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
"In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful...You alone we worship, and you alone we ask for help."
(Al-Fatehah 1:1, 1:5)

Today, many of the people in the world believe in a single god, which we call "God". However, do they all believe in the same God? Many people would like to believe so, but the truth is, this is not the case.

For example, "God" has many names. Muslims call him "Allah"; most Christians and Jews call him "God"; Jehovah's Witnesses call him "Jehovah"; Mormons call him "Heavenly Father". (There is also, by the way, a Heavenly Mother, although they don't talk a lot about her to outsiders.)

Even in the Bible, God is known by a variety of names. Jews, in fact, have a name for God, in Hebrew, that is so holy that they will not say it out loud in everyday speech or spell it in its entirety. Some devout Jews are even more extreme. Even in English, they will write "G-d", rather than "God".

But names are only names. Is it not possible that all these different names and ways of talking about a supreme being are actually referring to the same supreme being?

If you examine what different religions believe about God, you will see that this is not the case. Compare the god of the Christians to, say, the god of the Muslims or the god of the Jews, and it isn't hard to see that, all protestations to the contrary, they are not all talking about the same God.

The Christian God, for example, exists in three parts: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost). These are three separate persons, all eternal, all omnipresent, who form a single, unified deity called the Trinity.

The Muslim God, on the other hand, is a singular being, the all-powerful creator of the universe. Although Moslems recognize Jesus as a prophet, they do not believe he was crucified, nor do they believe him to be part of the supreme deity. (In fact, to a Muslim, such an idea is blasphemous.) Muslims revere Mohammed, whom they consider to be the last of a series of prophets, as bringing God's word to Earth. However, Mohammed is very much a human being.

To Jews, God is the god of the ancient Israelites, the supreme being who made a divine covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-4). Like most other monotheistic religions, Judaism considers God to be the creator of the universe and incorporeal (without a body). However, Jews do not recognize Jesus as being divine or a part of God. They do, however, believe that God has communicated with the Jewish people via various prophets (although, unlike Muslims, they do not consider Mohammed to have been a prophet).

Other religions have completely different conceptions of a supreme being. Hindus, for example, believe that all reality is a single divine entity that composes the entire universe. To Hindus, this entity is the universe and, at the same time, transcends the universe. They visualize a supreme deity as a triad consisting of Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu (Krishna), the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Some Hindus consider Vishnu to be the ultimate deity, others consider Shiva to be the ultimate deity. At the same time, Hindus collectively worship many hundreds of different gods and goddesses, each of which represents one aspect of the universal being.

Here is one last example that I find particularly interesting. Like Christians, Mormons recognize a holy trinity. However, they consider God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be completely separate entities. God and Jesus have bodies of flesh and bone (and, literally, God had sex with Mary to produce Jesus). The Mormon God was once a human-like being, and (I'm skipping a lot of details here) they believe that it is possible for a man to eventually become a God in his own right and rule over his own planet.

Around the world, belief in God is common, but by no means universal. In the United States and Canada, about 85% of the population identify themselves as being Christians. However, worldwide, only about 33% of people are Christians. The second most popular religion (about 22%) is Islam. (It is expected, by the way, that in the 21st century, Islam will overtake Christianity.) The third largest religion (about 13%) is Hinduism.

So, what does this all mean? You ask me, "Is there a God?" but which God do you mean? The God of the Christians, of the Muslims, of the Jews? Or do you mean the human-like God of the Mormons, or perhaps one of the many Hindu gods that symbolize a single aspect of the universal spirit?

Even in the Bible, a careful reading will show that there is more than one God, each with its own personality. For instance, many biblical scholars believe that the Bible derives from a variety of different literary sources, and each of these describes what seems to be a different God.

Religions that claim to worship the one true God do not all refer to the same God.

Religions that claim to worship the one true God do not all refer to the same God. Moreover, when you look deeper into the details of religious beliefs, you see even more disagreement. Almost all religions believe that theirs is the true path — the only path to proper worship of God and salvation. However, virtually all religions contradict one another in many important areas. There is no way they can all be true, and in fact, there doesn't seem to be any way in which even one of them can be true.

So is there a God? No, but if you are confused about it, you are in good company. People around the world, perhaps most people, are looking for God, including your friend who believes in God. At times, it seems as if there is a divine power at work in his life.

How do we talk to such people? You ask for my "strongest points against there being a God", so you might try to persuade your friend. Let me tell you why that won't work.

You are making an assumption that your friend is interested in the absolute truth. That if he (or you, for that matter) could be convinced, rationally, that God did or did not exist, he (and you) would believe the truth and that would be that.

However, religion doesn't work that way. It is a fundamental axiom of most religious systems that one does not understand basic spiritual truths by reasoning, argument and experimentation. Rather, real spiritual understanding comes from faith. In other words, to begin to know God, you must suspend rational thinking. You believe — not because it makes sense to do so — but simply because you choose to believe.

Thus, if your friend is honestly religious, he believes in God because he chooses to believe in God, and he admits from the outset that reason has nothing to do with it. Against such faith, all the arguments in the world mean nothing, so don't waste your time.

However, what about the "divine power at work" in your friend's life. I say that God does not exist. What then, is this divine power?

To some extent, it might be just in his mind. It is known, for example, that certain conditions in the temporal lobe in one's brain can produce dissociative states that are interpreted as religious experiences. It is also well known that people tend to believe in the religious system in which they were raised.

But there is more, and to explain it, I want to digress for a moment to talk about (of all things) the stock market.

Within the stock market, people invest by buying shares in a company. But of what use is a share of stock? If you buy a house, you can live in it. If you buy a car, you can drive it. But when you buy shares of stock, you can do only one thing with them: sell them to someone else. To do so, you have to sell them to someone who is willing to buy them.

But why are your shares worth anything to anyone? If it looks as if the company is going to increase its profits, the price of the shares will go up, and you can sell them to someone at a profit. But remember, the only thing that person can do with the shares is sell them to someone else.

The stock market works because, in the long run, the prices of a stock reflect the profits of that particular company. And why do stock prices behave in that way? Because everyone believes that they should act that way. In other words, the stock market is based on faith!

Of course, the stock market requires a lot more than faith. It requires people to act upon that faith. But we can see that when a great many people believe in something and act upon that belief, the result can be something real. The stock market, for example, is most definitely real.

Similarly, I may assert that there is no God — and this may be true — but we must recognize that billions of people believe in some type of religion and some type of God or gods, and many of these people act upon their beliefs. In doing so, they create something that is real.

I am not sure what that thing is, or even if it is a single thing. I do know, however, that if religion and the idea of God were removed from the world, we would be infinitely poorer.

So perhaps that is the source of your friend's "divine power" — a shared belief with a great many other people that God exists and that his particular religious convictions are the right ones.

You ask me, "Is there a God?"

I say no. But I also say that belief in God and religion — and the actions of people who share these beliefs — creates something that is important to us all. That something is abstract and elusive, but it is crucial to our culture and to our well-being.

But what about the truth? Does it not matter that many of these belief systems are based on a supreme being that doesn't exist?

Of course it does, but you must consider that religions evolve. Our current beliefs are much more developed and sophisticated than the beliefs of our ancestors, and the clock has not stopped. Religion and the idea of God will continue to change, slowly, over many years.

Clearly, we still have a long way to go, but to be fair, our progress in the last two thousand years has been remarkable. For you and me, God as a supreme being may not exist, but the results of worldwide faith are real and valuable.