No one knows what God is. People don’t agree. And religious people get furious when an atheist offers a definition. Defining God is any robust way is a task that is rarely undertaken, and when it is undertaken there is normally some glaringly obvious omission or implication that the person offering the definition refuses to accept. I’ll run through some examples of this later, although they are not the point. The point is that I have recently encountered a large number of people who defend the religious position and yet are considerably more open to the idea they have no idea what a God is or might be. I, therefore, want to offer a definition.
My definition will not include anything supernatural and will not make any claims about the universe that are directly contrary to anything we currently know and, hopefully, will be based on starting principles that many would accept.
My very first assumption is this: the contents of a religious book make attempts to define a God or gods. I can’t imagine this being contentious; that is often accepted as one of the leading purposes of a religious text and, on the face of it, I can’t imagine how a religious text would neglect such a task. (I say that slightly tongue in cheek, as I simultaneously believe that religious book patently fail to define a God that religious people believe in.)
My second assumption is in response to having been told on several occasions that I don’t understand how to read the Koran or the Bible. (I am admittedly showing a monotheistic and Abrahamic influence.) That assumption is this: how one reads the religious text is an important part in understanding what the definition presented in a religious book actually means. There are literalists who may disagree, but then there’s a fun little exercise where I find a passage of their Book I don’t think they’ll agree with and they’ll take to lecturing me on context and history; there is, after all, a wrong way to read it!
Religious books contain horrors, and horrors perpetrated by humans, at that. They contain murder, rape, genocide, bigotry, subjugation and ownership of people and, perhaps worst of all, Divine permission to carry out these things; as an atheist, I might be tempted to call that “self-excusal”. God commands murders, wars and unions between victims and their aggressors. There is absolute horror.
There is also beauty in religious books. There are passages of forgiveness and love; tolerance and family; charity and friendship. Religious texts are not cover-to-cover horror (but that doesn’t diminish the need for certain interpretations of God to be appended by an explanation of how there can be such misery in the text); but neither is a religious book bursting with love.
But we read that in a certain way. I have to confess to being an interested observer in this and not having done the full research. However, such research would probably just involve doing what I occasionally do, just in a more controlled and recorded fashion: reading comments to see which passages of a religious text get vigorous defending by demanding people read the passages a certain way. The pattern is pretty consistent: horrible passages are defended by context, lovely bits are allowed to stand as universally applicable.
One could take this as the reason so many religious people seem to describe “Spinoza’s God”, either implicitly or explicitly. Although people tend to not admit it, this is an outright rejection of a God described in a book and is relying entirely on one’s own intuition on a topic for which they have no input, empirical or otherwise. Blind guesswork, I suppose
Religious texts document the darkest recesses of the human mind, with torture and Divine excusal, as well as the more powerful and wonderful parts of human expression, of love and beauty. More importantly, the way people read the text is analogous to the struggle of many of us to uplift the beauty of our humanity and cut-out the horror of our brutality. I think that is what we are really aiming at when we talk of a God: we are alluding to our own humanity. People hide their own ethics behind a God, both abhorrent and agreeable: from denying human rights to building wells. People say “God” when they mean their own ethics. (There are exceptions, but they are in very forced situations, discussing biodiversity or the phase of expansion from a singularity.) God is our recognition that we need to continually struggle against our brutality and towards our empathy and compassion.
God, as some ethical metaphor, is something religious people might as well go along with. The personal and interactive God that is normally claimed has several issues: if one tries to take a non-metaphorical God from a religious text one runs into the problem that science strongly cuts that out of the picture both philosophically and empirically; if one tries to make up their own interactive and personal God, then they’re making it up; if one tries to make it up and claims they’re not making it up, but it’s actually what the book says, then they encounter the problem of that being demonstrably false.
God is perhaps more defensibly better defined in ethical terms, like humanism, or at least a metaphor for it. God is not a force that dictates morality; God is not personal and has no agency; God is our struggle to be better people and part of better societies. God is not your reason to suppress the rights of others and neither is it something to hide behind when you’re arguing for your self-interest; God is the complete opposite, that idea that what one should do is act with compassion and support others and love thy neighbour.