table of contents

Do I Believe God Exists?

originally posted: May 23, 2007
last updated: June  3, 2011

1. Introduction

Do you believe that God exists?

It's a difficult question, in part because it is such a very great muddle of a question. It contains at least three terms whose meaning is so uncertain that any short answer is almost completely meaningless. Whether my answer is "yes" or "no" depends entirely on the definitions of the terms.

I can summarize by saying that I am enough of a believer to be willing to say things like "God bless you," "thank God," and the occasional "angels and ministers of grace defend us," but I'm deeply suspicious of just about every other use people make of the word "God."

But really, to answer the question meaningfully, a monograph is required.

This is my monograph.

My personal religious journey did not start in any religious group. I have never been a member of any church, and have only attended a handful of actual religious gatherings in my life. I remain utterly uninterested in the idea of joining any religious group.

I have, however, taken a lifelong interest in the whole question of faith, having entertained many interesting concepts and come to just a few conclusions that feel right to me. This monograph attempts to pull together my thoughts on God into a reasonably coherent whole. I think the ideas expressed here could be expressed as falling somewhere in the range of deism, agnosticism and atheism. I take issue with some of the basic ideas of each of those philosophies, but nevertheless end up pretty close to all of them.

The three tricky words in the question "Do you believe that God exists" are:

What does it mean to say I believe God exists? How is it different from saying "I think God exists", or that "I know God exists"? Is belief the same as knowledge? Stronger? Weaker? Do you believe in God more strongly than you believe that 1+1=2? Is doubt part of belief or it's opposite?

Which God are we talking about? An immortal, shape-shifting skirt-chaser named Zeus who lives on Mount Olympus, or a transcendental spirit named Jehovah who lives everywhere, or one of the other thousand or so candidates for the job? Does believing in God necessitate believing He (or She) created the universe? Is He good? Does She listen to our prayers? Does He answer them? Does She have a plan for us? Does He tell anyone what it is? Does She judge us? Does He dispense rewards and punishments in the after life? Was Jesus Her son? Does He love us? Does any particular church speak for Him? How many of these things do we need to believe about God for our belief to count and who's counting?

Normally, when we say something exists, we basically mean it is somewhere to be found in the universe. We could, in theory, go out and catch it in a butterfly net, if we had a big enough net. But believers in a transcendent God say He (or She) exists outside of the universe. If you believe in a God who is transcedent (and if you believe He created the universe, you kind of have to), then presumably you have invented a whole new meaning for the word "exist", that allows things that aren't in the universe to exist anyway. What else exists in this sense? Heaven? Hell? Narnia? Middle Earth?

I admit to some sympathy with agnostics, who look this mess and say, "How the heck should I know?" or atheists, who, more pro-actively, just declare it all nonsense. But I think there are things worth thinking about buried in this question.

In the first draft of this essay, I started with a section on what I think it means to say I believe in something, but that section grew so large and complex that I eventually broke it out as a separate article. It's useful to look at that before reading this, as the ideas from that define my whole approach to the God question. I take from that article four main ideas that motivate this article:

  1. It OK to believe things without evidence. There are quite a few big ideas that I believe in purely as a matter of faith, without a single shred of evidence to support them. I think this is true not only for me, but for every other functioning human being. Faith is not only OK, it is necessary.

  2. I produced a list of some things I have faith in. One that is important here is that I believe in other people. The people I meet in the real world really have minds and feelings very much like my own. Their feelings matter as much as my own.

  3. Faith is essentially hope. To ask if I believe God exists, is to ask if there is something in the concept of God that I so strongly want to be true that I am willing to believe in it without needing any evidence.

  4. An idea is like a tool. The best ones are easy to grasp, and are useful in a wide variety of contexts. When looking for something in the idea of God that I want to believe in, I'm really mostly looking for something that lets me better understand and explain my life in the universe.
In the first part of this essay, I use this foundation to dissect the idea of God and see what there is in it that I have faith in. I find, in the end, no overwhelming need to believe in any kind of God at all. I could live without the concept if I somehow had to. But there are bits of it I rather like, and that I do find rather pleasant to believe in, at least in a mild sort of way.

One way to avoid the whole question of what "existence" means is to just focus on the question of whether we believe that God has a detectable influence on the universe. If God exists in any meaningful sense, then he ought to somehow make a noticable difference, right?

Well, no, I don't think so. I don't believe in miracles of any form. I don't believe that we're ever likely to encounter anything in the universe that can only be explained as an act of God, but, in my small way at least, I believe in God anyway, and find that belief useful. In the last section I present and discuss a little parable to help clarify how I manage that trick.

2. Belief in God

There have been many proofs of the existence of God offered, and they all look like rubbish to me. They all either rest on assumptions that I do not believe in, or just fail to make a conclusive argument for God. Circular reasoning is much favored. So far as I can tell, there isn't a shred of evidence that God exists. The existence of God in no way follows from the "things I believe" that I stated in my essay on belief.

On the other hand, that essay also established that I believe quite a lot of things that I can't prove, why shouldn't I be willing to believe in one more?

I've said that faith is a form of hope, so then the question at hand is really, do I hope that God exists? Is there any aspect of this "God" concept that appeals to me so strongly, that I really, truly want it to be true?

Clearly I am taking a very utilitarian approach here. I've already discarded all actual evidence that God exists, and with that abandoned all hope of proving that God is or is not real. We aren't discussing whether God exists, only whether I believe He (or She) exists, which depends entirely on whether the idea of God does me any good.

Also, my judgements here are, obviously, entirely personal. Different people have different hopes and needs. Beliefs that seem unnecessary to me, may well strike a deeper chord in others. Everyone has to follow their own heart on questions of belief.

2.1. God, the Creator

The concept of God encompasses many things. I don't see any necessary contradiction between our best modern understanding of the history of universe and the concept of a divine creator being somehow the prime mover behind it all. It's OK. The two ideas can be made to fit together, so long as you don't insist on that business about the universe being only six thousand years old. But so what? What does the notion that God was behind all this add to the story?

Well, purposefullness. There is nothing in the science that suggests that there was any particular plan or purpose to the evolution of the universe. I stated in my essay on belief that I had faith that life isn't pointless, that it all somehow matters. I could derive that belief from belief in a divine plan.

But what do I gain by doing so? If I actually had some clue what this divine plan was, then I might find it immensely useful, but I don't have a clue. Sometimes religious groups have theories about the plan, but when it gets down to explaining day-to-day events, what I mostly hear is "God moves in mysterious ways." They don't really seem to have compelling explanations either. So, overall, I'm inclined to stick with the plain, unadorned belief that life has value. It's vague, but the God theory doesn't seem to do anything to make it less so.

2.2. God, the Judge

Another important function of God is as a source of morality. He (or She) defines what is good and bad behavior. He (or She) also provides justice, rewarding the good, and punishing the bad in the afterlife. Knowing that all will be rewarded in the afterlife gives us strength to do good in this life, even if we have to suffer to do what is good.

The weakness with this is that God's moral laws haven't been communicated terribly clearly. They seem to have been handed down to a large number of prophets who pass the word to us, telling us what God wants us to do. But the prophets seem to have made a muddle of it. God has wanted us to keep slaves and free them. God has wanted men to rule over women, and not. God has supported both sides of every war in history. God praises every church, and condemns them all. God has condemned witchcraft, homosexuality, money-lending, and mowing the lawn on the Sabbath. Terrific good and terrific evil have both been done in the name of God.

There may be some genuine prophets somewhere in the world, but they are hard to pick out from among the hordes of people carrying pocket-sized, swiss-army gods around in their pockets, who whip Him (or Her) out to back up whatever opinion they may happen to hold. How do we tell the real thing from the fakes? Why am I inclined to suspect that the least likely place to find a genuine prophet would be on a pulpit?

In the end, we must trust to our own judgement to decide which moral rules are really coming from God. The final moral choices we must each make on our own, following the dictates of our own hearts. How do we know that our hearts will guide us truely? We don't. We are forced to hope so. This, then, is clearly a matter of faith.

But do we need to believe in God to have this faith? I think that my own belief in the reality of other people is a sounder basis for morality. If I believe that other people exist, and that their feelings and concerns are as real as my own, then I think I have a sound basis for moral action. I might well chose to suffer hardship to do good, not because I think I'll someday be rewarded for it, but because I think others will benefit from it. The key to moral judgement is simply the golden rule, "how would I feel if this were done to me?" How would I feel if someone hit me with a stick? How would I feel if society condemned me for wanting to be with the person that I loved? How would I feel if my ancestors burnt up all the oil and destablized the environment, leaving me a legacy of famine, plague and war?

I remember that in the 60's and 70's when I was a kid, a lot of people were talking about the failure of mankind to make moral progress. We had put a man on the moon, but in the context of the cold war and the Vietnam war, it seemed we had failed to learn to live with each other peacefully. We tend to think these days that the idealism of that era was largely wasted, but looking back over last century, I have to say that I believe we have made tremendous progress in morality, at a pace that rivals the rate of technological progress.

We've seen dramatic progress in the recognition of the rights of every imaginable oppressed group. Starting with Ghandi, on through the civil rights movements for blacks in America and South Africa, inspiring movements to liberate women, gays, and every imaginable ethnic, religious and racial minority, the twentieth century was a heck of a ride, unlike anything ever seen in the whole of human history. We saw Europe go through a series of vicious nationalistic wars, and then, stunningly, within a single generation, decide to throw away many national divisions, and form a Union. We saw two superpowers face each other with terrible weapons, and refrain from ever using them. We saw the Soviet Union, one of the most powerful totalitarian governments in history, simple decide to let go. No, the path has not been smooth, and the journey is very far from complete, but what has happened in the last century would have seemed impossible to anyone living in the millenia before.

What happened in the 20th century that made all this suddenly possible? Well, for one thing, there has been a massive increase in the population of the world and in the power of human technology. There are so many of us, and we are so much more able to do harm to each other, that something had to change. The world wars provided the most dramatic proof that the old ways were no longer workable.

But just because something is necessary, doesn't mean it will actually happen. I think what made it happen was the story tellers.

People have always told stories. Some true stories, some made up stories. Whenever you listen to a story, you are asked to view the world from the point of view of another person, the protagonist of the story. It's an excellent way to develop a sense of empathy, an ability to look beyond your own skin.

In the twentieth century, we've been innundated with stories. Stories in the news, stories on TV shows, stories in movies, stories in books, stories in comic books. Romances, mysteries, and histories. True stories and fantasies. Old stories and new.

How many stories have you been exposed this year? How many do you think Plato heard in a year? How many did Plato's housekeeper hear?

You can almost watch the progress of civil rights movements by watching the movies. In 1967, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? asked mainstream white audiences to sympathize with a black man. In 2005, Brokeback Mountain asked mainstream straight audiences to sympathize with gay characters. If the root of morality is sympathy for other humans, then there can be no more powerful and pervasive positive moral force than our media and literature, and I think its effects can readily be seen.

Very often the various organized churches of the world have been powerful supporters of the moral progress that mankind has made in the twentieth century. But most of them have suffered the handicap of having as their central documents texts that date from the moral dark ages. Yes, you can find some good moral values in the Bible. Don't murder. Don't steal. Honor thy mother and father. Probably that was fine stuff two-thousand years ago, but it's rather tepid by modern standards of morality. Where's tolerance for others? Where's stewardship for the earth? Trying to use the Bible as the primary guide to a moral life is like trying to navigate an airplane using Ptolemy's map of the world. You can really only do it if you have a real map hidden away someplace and are only pretending to use the old map.

So God as a source for morality just doesn't impress me very much. We've got better ways to handle this.

2.3. God, the Resurrector

God promises us life after death. If we live a good life, we will live on in eternity, re-united with our loved ones.

I've certainly known people who felt that the only way they could survive their grief in the face of the loss of their loved ones was because they felt sure that the loved ones were not lost, and that a reunion would someday come.

But I personally, don't feel the need. If there is a God, then I can't believe that He (or She) intended for us to live our lives focused on the afterlife. If He (or She) wanted that, then He (or She) could have provided us with some view of the afterlife. Maybe we'd get messages from those who crossed over, or something.

But that's not the case. The afterlife, if it exists at all, is completely and utterly hidden from us. If God designed it that way, then the point must have been that He (or She) did NOT want us spending our lives in this universe thinking about the next life. He (or She) wants us to focus on THIS life, at least while we are here.

So, we should treasure our lives while we live them, and enjoy the company of our loved ones while we have them, not live in expectation of something better or a second chance laying somewhere over the rainbow. If it shows up, fine and good. But meanwhile, it's not worth thinking about.

2.4. God, the Benevolent

Recently, an atheist friend of mine expressed admiration for a bumper sticker she had seen, saying "God Bless Everyone, No Exceptions." She was trying to think of a way to say essentially the same thing, without reference to a God she doesn't believe in.

Most statements about God are obvious nonsense. "God wants this." "God loves that." It's presumptuous to pretend to know the mind of God, and I distrust all those who claim to. Any statement of that form is almost certainly nonsense.

But when someone says, "God Bless You," then that is something different. It is a wish, not a declaration. There is not necessarily any actual expectation that by saying so, God is actually going to be influenced in anyone's favor. It is an expression of hope, and thus, I think, the purest possible expression of faith.

And without some kind of God, it doesn't really work. I suppose an atheist could say, "I hope random events in the universe work out favorably for you," but that's really kind of ridiculous, stating that the universe is random and wishing it wasn't in the very same sentence.

I think prayer can be regarded as a more elaborate version of "God Bless You" (or "God Bless Me"). I very much doubt that it has any actual efficacy. If there is a God and if He (or She) wants to know what we want, then I doubt if He (or She) needs to be told. But that doesn't mean prayer is useless. Prayer is an expression of hope. Is hope useless? I hope not.

The sense that there is something in the universe that can regard us with kindness, seems valuable to me. God can be viewed as a vehicle for hope.

This is, for me, by far the most compelling reason to want to believe in God: so I can sincerely say "God Bless You" or "Thank God." I suppose it might be possible to find some sort of non-God way of expressing the same hope. But you really have to go to extremes of circumlocation to do it. The concept of "God" is available for the job and does it well. Might as well use it.

So, I don't end by finding any burning need to believe in God, but certainly a gentle inclination for limited belief. There are many, many things I believe in more firmly, but I do have a degree of faith in this thing called God.

3. How God Exists

To close this discussion, I'd like to mix some science with some story telling. I don't mean to prove anything by this, but maybe to suggest some ideas about how God relates to the world. Here is a little story of two anthromorphized blood cells:

3.1 A Tale of Two Cells

Once upon a time, a red blood cell named Leslie was jittering down a capillary in the cerebellum. The neuron cells, who are always excitable, were very rowdy that day, throwing sparks in all directions. Every time one cell was zapped, it would curse and then zap a few neighbors, until the whole brain seemed to be ablaze with waves of electrical discharges.

Leslie and the other red blood cells were doing their best to deliver oxygen to the glial cells whose job it was to tend the rioting neurons. But the plasma was flowing fast that day and Leslie accidentally bumped into a neural axon and received a terrific jolt from a stray discharge.

When Leslie regained its senses, it found a white blood cell floating near by. It was Leslie's old friend, Pat. Long ago Pat had engulfed a marauding bacterium that had been harrassing Leslie, and ever since they had always taken the time to exchange a few kind words whenever their paths through the circulatory system happened to cross.

"Pat? What happened?" asked Leslie. "Where am I?"

"I saw you hit by a neural discharge up in the cerebellum," said Pat. "We're riding the blood stream back toward the lungs now. Are you alright? That was quite a shock you took."

"I think I'm OK," said Leslie doing its best to pull itself together.

"I'm glad," said Pat. "Those neurons are nothing but trouble. Everytime they get all excited like that, there's always trouble of one kind or another. We'd be better off without them, if you ask me."

"Well, the glia are quite nice, and, as for the neurons, well, I'm sure they too have some place in God's plan," said Leslie.

Pat scoffed and said, "Well, I'm glad you're OK, in any case."

"But don't you believe in God's plan?" asked Leslie as they were carried into the lungs.

"Well, I'm sure that God stuff is all very fine for the anucleate masses, but we leukocytes hardly ever go in for that kind of superstitious nonsense. Leukocytes have traveled all over the world, and seen just about everything there is to see, and none of us have ever seen any sign of any God," replied Pat.

Leslie didn't reply immediately, being busy collecting a fresh load of oxygen, but it spoke again as they rejoined the bloodstream flowing back to the heart.

"Well," Leslie said, "I've traveled a bit myself since I was a reticulocyte, and I've seen God everywhere I looked. I see God's hand in all the marvelous complexity and overriding order of the universe. Just look at this beautiful vein, and all the whole glorious circulatory system we travel every day with it's web of capillaries reaching into every part of the body. Look at how every cell seems to have a place and a function, all fitting together and working together in ways that cellular science is only begining to understand. This is no accident of fate! There must be some great intelligence that put all this together."

"This is a very nice vein and the circulatory system is a great wonder," said Pat as they passed into the chambers of the heart. "But it was all built by cells like you and me, dividing and differentiating and doing their jobs, not by some magical, invisible God."

"Yes, yes, but we cells are just serving God's plan. And God's love for us is visible in the whole miraculous way the world fits together to support and sustain us," said Leslie. Not being eager to revisit the brain any time soon, Leslie steered them into an artery leading to one of the other limbs, where the demand for oxygen seemed unusually high.

"Oh come on," said Pat. "I know you've seen how horrible some of those bacteria can be, and I could show you whole neighborhoods ravaged by viruses, with hardly a cell uncorrupted. You know how much suffering there is in this world. How could a loving God allow these kinds of things?"

"I'm only a cell," answered Leslie as they entered another capillary. "I don't know what it is all about. But I know that through God's plan, we are all part of something far greater than we can imagine, and that all of this, including even the neurons, has a purpose."

In fact, Leslie was right. They were a part of something far greater than they could imagine. They were part of Mary Krystal Jones, who at that moment slid into home base, clinching the league championship for the QwikLube softball team, and incidentally skinning her knee. Pat and Leslie were left to dry up in a droplet of blood in the dust near home base, and never had a chance to finish their conversation.

3.2. Levels of Existence

So who was right? Pat or Leslie?

Pat sees itself surrounded by a world of cells. Everything that happens in Pat's world can be totally and completely explained as the actions of cells. Light strikes a cone cell, which zaps a neuron, which zaps a lot of other neurons, which set a bunch of muscle cells to contracting. Nowhere is anything miraculous happening. Bacteria are not being struck down by the wrath of Mary Krystal. They have to be hunted down and killed by hard working cells like Pat. It's all just one cell acting on another. Pat has no reason to believe that Mary Krystal Jones or any other divine being exists.

I think that is a curious point. There exist vantage points, from which neither Mary Krystal Jones nor you nor I can reasonably be said to exist. If science were limited to looking at people only at the cellular level, then scientists would probably be saying there is no evidence that human minds exist. If you look too closely, there are no people, only communities of cells. If you look closer still, it's just organic molecules, or atoms, or subatomic particles, all working by perfectly consistant natural laws, without any sign of a "higher being" named Mary Krystal Jones.

And yet, you, I and Mary Krystal Jones do exist. (Well, two out of three. I made up Mary Krystal.) We have thoughts, feelings, and plans. So Leslie's faith in a higher being is not entirely misplaced. And Leslie is not entirely wrong about benevolence of that higher being either. Mary Krystal goes to a lot of trouble to take good care of her cells. She does remarkably complicated stuff just to ensure that her cells will have the food and water they need and that they will be protected from extremes of heat or cold. She's careful to make sure that her cellular community doesn't get flattened by a northbound bus or is otherwise destroyed by all sorts of hazards that her cells couldn't begin to imagine. In the case of a major injury or illness, she seeks ways to help her cellular community repair itself. She even works to ensure that whole new cellular communities will get created.

But that doesn't mean that Mary Krystal spends a lot of time worrying over the fate of the individual cells of her body. Her ancestors did all the same stuff for their cellular communities without even being aware that there was such a thing as a cell. She certainly doesn't talk to her cells or watch over their daily activities. She couldn't if she wanted to. Nor does she mourn very much if a few cells are lost or damaged.

Leslie is also right that Mary Krystal has a plan. But Leslie is unlikely to understand a softball game or the value of the social standing that Mary Krystal is likely to gain from winning a softball game. And if Leslie were a real cell, rather than a thinking, talking anthropomorphized cell, it would be even more hopeless. If it makes Leslie feel good to believe in the plan, that's fine, but Leslie is never going to be able to understand the plan. And Mary Krystal doesn't need Leslie to understand about softball. All Mary Krystal ever wanted from Leslie was that he keep on diligently delivering oxygen where it is needed.

Mary Krystal doesn't exist at a cellular level. Her world is not a world of cells. She is concerned with dealing with the world at a human level. That's what she's for. She doesn't improve life for her cells by micro-managing them, but by mega-managing issues that are beyond their comprehension.

And the weird thing is that the cells dealings with their cellular world, and Mary Krystal's dealings with her human world are the same thing. The cells are Mary Krystal and Mary Krystal is the cells. They are utterly different, while being absolutely identical. She is imminent and transcient in their world, everywhere and nowhere, and they in hers. It's a mystery that makes the mystery of the Trinty seem simple.

I suspect that this paradox doesn't arrise from the nature of the world as much as from the nature of the human mind. One of the tricks we use to understand the universe with our limited minds, is to slice it up into levels, human, cellular, molecular, atomic, subatomic, etc, and understand the levels separately. Though any one of these models can be used to fully explain everything that Mary Krystal does, there is much about Mary Krystal that would be completely lost if we described her only by the interactions of the subatomic particles that make up her body. You might argue that all the higher level descriptions are really just abstractions of the lower level description, more metaphorical than real, and yet they are very powerful metaphores, that allow us to understand things about Mary Krystal that would be incomprehensible to us without them.

So the idea of God can be thought of as metaphor, a higher-level abstraction for the behavior of the universe, a level higher than the ones normally operated upon by science. Since that level is above our own natural level of perception, it is very hard, possibly impossible, to effectively collect data on this level, or build a very good understanding of it, but the metaphor might be a useful one anyway.

So, I think this is the sense in I am most inclined to believe that God exists, as a higher-level metaphor for the behavior the universe. I know that that sounds like a pretty weak form of belief. But given that I believe that you are I are metaphors for the behavior for the collective actions of the zillions of subatomic particles that make up our bodies and brains, I think we can taken it as demonstrated that I am capable of believing very, very firmly in the truth of a metaphor.

3.3. Where is God?

If we apply the Pat and Leslie analogy in the obvious way, then we might image that we are like cells in the body of God. We might associate the ecosystem of the planet earth with the body of God, arriving some variation of the Gaia theory with Gaia as God.

I really don't think this works. I think it's possible that there might be some utility in thinking of life on earth collectively as a single giant creature. But it seems to me that it would be a creature with very interesting biology, but not much in the way of interesting behavior. It doesn't seem to interact with any other ecosystems through any medium that we can detect, so it would seem to be an entirely solitary creature, without any intercourse with other ecosystems.

It's hard to imagine why such a solitary creature, with no other creatures to interact with would even be self-aware in any meaningful sense. What use would it have for intellect? Eternal naval-gazing, contemplating the actions of the creatures that form its cells? That makes no sense. No, I suspect that if there is a Gaia, its intellectual abilities are more like those of a vast one-celled animal than like a human. It might have responses to stimula, but not divine plans or emotions.

Or you could go further and suppose that maybe our entire universe functions in some way as a conscious being, interacting with other universes, taking actions and forming plans on a level we cannot concieve of to gain advantages we cannot appreciate for itself (and incidentally for us). Maybe it communicates with other universes through blackholes, or something like that.

If so, then it seems a creature very remote from us. The behavior of a single cell, or a modest size group of cells can have a significant impact on the behavior of Mary Krystal, but how much impact could the behavior of the whole human race have on the universe? If that is the God we are a part of, then we are a dauntingly small part.

Or maybe we are collecting under the loose term "God" many entities operating at many levels, the parts and functions of which we are unlikely to be able to appreciate. Why should God be anything as simple as a single human-like mind?

The anthropomorphism in the story of Pat and Leslie is unrealistic. Real cells don't have beliefs or points of view. Storytelling magic can make it so, but it's a dubious foundation to build upon. When we try to imagine God, we inevitably repeat the error of the Pat and Leslie story in reverse. We anthropomorphize God. The only way we have to imagine a "higher being" is to imagine Him (or Her) as being a lot like us. But in fact, His (or Her) mind is going to be no more like us than our mind is like the mind of a real cell, a gulf so wide that it isn't even meaningful to talk about the mind of a cell. Any attempt we can make to imagine God, will always do Him (or Her or It or Glub or Znot) a stunningly huge injustice. We cannot begin to imagine God. Anything we do imagine will be completely wrong and inadequate.

I don't think that over-literal application of the cellular analogy gets us much of anywhere. So it's hard to understand how we could be parts of some higher-level creature who is in any way meaningful to us. Pat and Leslie would perhaps feel the same. Perhaps one of the things we should be taking from the analogy is that we shouldn't expect to understand how we fit into God any better than our cells are able to understand how they fit together to form us. But so what? Our knowledge of the universe will always be incomplete, inaccurate, and inadequate. The knowledge we have is a collection of useful approximations. Most of the time, Euclid's geometry is a good approximation, even if it's wrong. We imagine subatomic particles as clouds of probability, sometimes waves sometimes particles. That's all metaphor. None of it is accurate, but it lets our minds get a usable grip on the truth.

I think God is a useful metaphor. For the reasons I discussed above, I find it a concept that is useful in helping me be able to think about the world, if only so I can say "God Bless You" and "Thank God." Sure, I have doubts about God, but I have doubts about everything else too, so why should that stop me?

3.4. A Natural God

I'm inclined to believe in a God who is natural, not supernatural. The actions of God do not appear in our world as inexplicable miracles, just as the actions of Mary Krystal do not appear as miracles in the universe of Pat and Leslie. When God acts, nothing happens that is not entirely explanable by science. I don't expect to ever find any phenomenon in the world that can only be explained as an act of God, just as Pat and Leslie will never find any phenomenon in their world that can only be explained as an act of Mary Krystal Jones.

I found the God concept useful primarily for in talking about my faith that there is a certain benevolence in the world. Is there a scientific explanation for why the universe should seem that way to me?

Probably. In the first place, life has existed on the earth for four billion years. If it hadn't existed for that long, then there wouldn't have been time for life to evolve far enough so that some creature could be sitting here wondering if the universe is benevolent. But any universe in which life can keep hanging on and growing for four billion years must be a fairly agreeable one. If there were some huge amount of universes originally, some friendlier to life than others, then it is clear that the universes in which intelligent life is able to evolve eventually should be among the more friendly ones. This weirdly backward seeming argument is an application of what is called the anthropic principle.

A way of explaining the benevolence of our more local environment, of the earth, is through evolution. Evolution, with its ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest, is often understood by laymen as a matter of ruthless competition, in which living things struggle fiercely against each other for survival and dominance. This is something of a misapprehension.

Natural selection favors creatures that are well adapted to their environment. But what is their environment? In most cases, it's other living creatures. To survive, a bird must eat other living creatures, and avoid being eaten by other living creatures. Most birds roost in trees (other living creatures) and build nests there out of vegitable matter (other living creatures). They breathe and fly through an atmosphere which was largely manufactured by plants (other living creatures).

So a "fit" creature, in the evolutionary sense, is to a very great extent a creature that fits in well with other creatures. Suppose a super bird appeared that was incrediably efficient at finding and eating a particular type of moth. Soon, all those moths would be eaten, and the "super" bird would either die out or it would have to learn to eat something else. Either that, or some of the moths would evolve a strategy that allowed enough of them to survive so that the birds could continue to exist. Either way, the bird ends up being not so "super" after all, and it's actually more likely to survive.

We humans are the result of such an evolutionary process. Over millenia, we have adapted to the creatures around us, and they have adapted to us. Certainly our world is full of dangers. There are creatures that can eat us, and diseases that can kill us. But there are always upper limits to their deadliness. If we were standing on the surface of the moon, survival would be hopeless unless we had on a spacesuit. On the earth, we have a spacesuit consisting of a whole ecosystem of living things supporting us and sustaining us. If we feel that, at some level, the world is on our side, then we are right.

So, I can certainly explain my sense of living in a benevolent world by explanations other than God. And it would probably be wiser to do so, since the more scientific explanation makes clear that that benevolence is fragile. We have been using our technology to very rapidly change the way we interact with the other living things of the world. Since we are changing vastly faster than evolutionary forces can adapt, there is a very real danger that that benevolence that we have always depended could fail and break.

It's always a mistake to say you believe in God and then stop. It isn't safe to explain anything just by God. You need lower level explanations, explanations on levels that humans can really fully, rationally understand.

In theory explaining the universe with a God-level explanation could work. If Pat and Leslie had been able to figure out that Mary Krystal was playing a softball game, then they might have been able to figure out that it was a bad time to be hanging out in capillaries in the knee. But even the imaginary intelligent cells in my story are never going to be able to comprehend softball, and I have little hope that we are anywhere near comprehending any plan of God's. So in practice, God is not useful as an explanation of anything.

But although the explanitory power of the idea of God is nearly zero, it's expressive power is very great. It lets us succinctly say things like "God bless the peace makers" or "abusing the environment shows disrespect for God's creation" or "horses have long legs so that they can run fast." Being able to express ourselves in these kinds of modes does help us think through some kinds of issues more easily.

4. Conclusion

So, I believe that the best way to understand the universe that we live in is through study of that universe. We call the study of the universe science, and it has been a terrific success. I believe in the natural, not the supernatural.

But I do find a place in my heart for the idea of God. I think personifying the universe is a useful mental trick, that lets us say important things like "God Bless You" and "Thank God" that would otherwise be extremely difficult to express.

And yes, finding an idea useful is a perfectly genuine form of belief. There are other ideas that I find more intensely useful, and which I thus believe in more intensely, but I do believe in God.

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Originally created with Backtalk version 1.4.5 / Wasabi version 1.0.3 - Copyright 1996-2005, Jan Wolter and Steve Weiss