What is a God?

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.

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134 thoughts on “What is a God?”

  1. In the 2,500 year old Western Heritage, which includes Christianity, God is well defined.

    He is First Cause. He is Creator.

    Those are the basics which may be reasoned out before approaching God through faith.

      1. If you could prove that everything exists DID occur naturally, that would invalidate several concepts of God. Not COULD happen naturally, but DID. Good luck with that.

        1. If you could prove that everything WAS made by God…

          (Not typed to be facetious, but to remind you of how the default position works.)

        2. Then I don’t understand your point.
          I was asking SoM a simple point on language: if the “creator” could be shown to be a natural process, would he still call it God? If not, then SoM has a deeper definition of a God in mind than the one he shared (and I’d like him to share that), else he would call the natural process God, and I have no problem with that.

        3. I was talking about the impossibility of the hypothetical question, and, of course, the opposite hypothesis.

          I would hope that the answer to the question would be “no”, because then that would be just (re)naming natural things.

      1. Hey johnz

        There is a reason people wear clothing to cover their nakedness and not apes………..get this correct, and you will be on the right track to answering your own question.

        But you make the great mistake thinking no-one ‘seems to be able’ to answer your question as to why God created the heaven and the earth; as in you think ‘they CANNOT answer.’

        No, it is simply, some WILL NOT answer your question. Big difference there fella. I have told you that the answer you seek is in the book you reject, so perhaps I am a bit smarter to not lower myself to provide you an answer that you will despise, and to give you one more excuse to carry on a conversation that gives your so called atheism a dose of credibility. Sorry, you have used up your excuses.

        I am not unaware of certain devices..

        1. “There is a reason people wear clothing to cover their nakedness and not apes…”. Oh, oh, I know this! Not enough hair (let me tell you, if I had a nice layer of fur, the clothes would be gone in an instant). What do I win, slaves, land, power, eternal life – any of the standard biblical prizes will do?

        1. But surely the painter doesn’t possess every painting that was, is, and will be. A maximum being is self-contained. Nothing is outside it, so that raises the question: why?

        2. Painters paint, because it is their nature to do so. And in many cases, they expect to get something out of it. It is postulated that creation is in God’s nature, and possibly He knows He will get something out of it.

          Asking “why” someone does something is human nature. And because we seldom (if ever) can completely know someone else’s mind and heart (or even our own), usually it is a lot of effort for unreliable and unverifiable results.

        3. Not being one, I would not be able to say 🙂 But even a perfect being can have preferences, and even if that being has the power to force those preferences, the choice may be to not force it.

        4. Perfect and infallible does not require omnipotent, so such a being could easily be without something desired but not needed. If we add in omnipotent, it becomes a bit more of a challenge. We have to consider the “perfection” includes the ability to NOT “magically” satisfy a desire which would be better satisfied externally.

  2. Discarding the concept of the supernatural pretty well makes the concept of God meaningless. In order for Him to exist with anywhere near the attributes claimed for Him, He must exist in an environment which allows these attributes to exist, as those attributes violate the laws of this environment.

      1. How do you support the hypothesis that God is not, at least partially, a physical being? It is fairly supportable that He is not physically present in OUR environment, but how can we say anything about His existence in whatever environment He is based in?

        1. No, research shows we’re disposed to finding “agency” in nature, and in a time when even the strongest among us were considered snack items, that had certain evolutionary benefits.

        2. Citation needed.
          And if all the citation says is what JZ thinks the research you’re alluding to says, then why can’t we use reason to overcome that disposition?

  3. I don’t think religious books define god, they attempt to tell the nature of god. For example the bible claims god is jealous, and so on. I don’t think there is any attempt to define what god is.

      1. I think I get what you imply. Would, for example, saying god is love be considered a definition of what god is? Or god is good? Heck, that god is a first cause. Is there anything we learn from these claims

        1. An internet theologian once told me that morality and intelligence are offshoots of some greater quality. We could be generous and add lovingness to that as well. Three offshoot from one, yet unnamed, superquality.
          Therefore, maximal attainment of any one of those would entail maximal attainment of all three. (I doubt the existence of this superquality as I don’t observe stupider people being less moral, and I’ve certainly met some immoral intelligent people.)
          This ‘God is love’ argument that internet theologians put forward makes God nothing more than this superquality. But, think about what that really means…
          It means we are all demi-gods because we are all capable of the elements of this superquality. It does not mean there is some external personal agent that actually exhibits the superquality, maximally. All it means is that we are all partially on our way up a ladder to a mental state that we have called ‘God’, but all it really is is maximal lovingness and maximal ignorance…
          (I think maximal intelligence is the same as maximal ignorance because maximal intelligence would entail the recognition of the sheer unfathomable volume of stuff we simply don’t know.)

          This starts to sound very Buddhist, and seems to have an overlap with what JZ was saying about the Scott Adam’s Debris God.

        2. I agree, not a bad thing if we would have such humans. I ask myself whether such a life would be interesting. Doesn’t the opportunity to learn add to the spice of life?

        3. Precisely. It’s actually a desirable system to have in place. We’re imaginative beings, so let’s use that to a greater, more collective good. Here, when someone does bad, they can truly be embarrassed about their actions, ashamed, and that is punishment enough.

        4. We might be onto something here. Here we have a genuine motivation to do good, and a genuine means of non-violent punishment when people make mistakes. It won’t be perfect, but a general mode for the greater population, it might just work.

          So, now we need a country to run this experiment, before going global. Know of any that are free?

    1. Study ancient Greek philosophy if you want to find out about God.

      Also, the Bible is a compendium on the nature of God, man and universe.

      So you saying, “I don’t think religious books define god,” is an admission that you aren’t thinking.

      1. I did just that and this is what I found

        Thales, who first inquired into this sort of matter, believed God to be a Spirit that made all things of water;

        Anaximander, that the gods were always dying and entering into life again; and that there were an infinite number of worlds;

        Anaximines, that the air was God, that he was procreate and immense, always moving

        Anaxagoras the first, was of opinion that the description and manner of all things were conducted by the power and reason of an infinite spirit.

        Alcmon gave divinity to the sun, moon, and stars, and to the soul.

        Pythagoras made God a spirit, spread over the nature of all things, whence our souls are extracted

        Parmenides, a circle surrounding the heaven, and supporting the world by the ardour of light.

        Empedocles pronounced the four elements, of which all things are composed, to be gods;

        Protagoras had nothing to say, whether they were or were not, or what they were

        Democritus was one while of opinion that the images and their circuitions were gods; another while, the nature that darts out those images; and then, our science and intelligence.

        Speusippus, the nephew of Plato, makes God a certain power governing all things, and that he has a soul.

        Zeno says ’tis the law of nature, commanding good and prohibiting evil; which law is an animal; and takes away the accustomed gods, Jupiter, Juno, and Vesta

        Diogenes Apolloniates, that ’tis air. Zenophanes makes God round, seeing and hearing, not breathing, and having nothing in common with human nature.

        Aristo thinks the form of God to be incomprehensible, deprives him of sense, and knows not whether he be an animal or something else

        Diagoras and Theodoras flatly denied that there were any gods at all

        Sir Isaac Newton He is called the Lord God, the Universal Emperor–that the word God is relative, and relates itself with slaves–and that the Deity is the dominion or the sovereignty of God, not over his own body, as those think who look upon God as the soul of the world, but over slaves

        Hart makes god the ground of being

  4. Nice. This definition falls within the purview of Scott Adam’s god in God’s Debris… a being who did the one thing it wasn’t sure it could do, so did it: blow itself to bits. The god (unknown to itself) is now reassembling itself, and we (everything) is a part of that: the debris, acquiring greater understanding as we progress toward the final assembly.

      1. I like the idea for, like Buddhism, it places full responsibility onto the individual. It is our duty to better ourselves and others, to progress toward this godhead by acting like a/the god. From a societal perspective, it has great power. Imagine if we had 5,000 years of history behind us of people acting on this idea? I think things would look quite a deal differently. Of course, Adam’s god is not defined (it could be a bastard), but I think human urges would paint it as something noble and desirable.

        1. Take a quick look at my comment to Mak. I think you might find yourself in agreement.
          Last time we tried to define a God–Evil God–you wrote a book.

        2. Was just reading it. Perfectly said, and I agree thoroughly. The only thing holding such a theory back is we have no indication that consciousnesses is transferable.

        1. I could use that methodology for literally any claim. It has tools needed to make anything passable.
          (1) Humility – by making this a step of the process you can simply call all people who deny your claim arrogant. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does get my guard up a little.
          (2) Faith – this is so vague and inexplicit as to allow anything.

        2. Yes.In fact Christ is the only person in who all the necessary components of life converge. Justice, love, mercy, all converge in the cross.
          “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NKJV)

        3. Justice, love and mercy are not necessary for life (that would be oxygen, water, food and shelter). Those attributes are some, but not all, of what are necessary for a life which can potentially be considered Godly.

        4. To someone who does not believe the Bible is the Word of God, quoting it is worse than useless. That would be like me saying Jesus is the host of a late night public television show, because that is what I saw on South Park…

        5. Actually, I have a very high regard for the truth. I believe the Bible is the Word of God, but since I can’t prove it, I will not state it as a “fact”. There was a time when I did NOT believe that, and so I can attest to how obnoxious it was when people spouted “facts” and could not back them up.

        6. And I never have 🙂 If a recipe called for it (which is really really unlikely), I know that I am no longer under the law. so won’t get whacked for it.

        7. Really? I thought He was quite clear that HE was fulfillment of the Law. If that is not the case, then every single person who has died after 73AD is doomed, since with the destruction of the temple, it became impossible to follow the Law.

        8. The article seems to state it in passing, but does not “explain” and is by no means “assuredly”.

          The basis of the Law was that a person could be “righteous” or not “righteous”. The “Law” was a guide to how to be righteous, and provided ways for those (everybody) who failed to follow the Law to return to righteousness. Righteousness did not and does not “save” you from the punishment for unrighteousness; it just gives you the possibility of avoiding the punishment.

          Being “righteous” meant that you were in harmony with God and with the people and culture of the ancient Israelites. That is why many of the elements of the Law seem unnecessary or even are impossible today. After all, God’s instructions to us are alleged to be for our own good, not because He enjoys being arbitrarily authoritarian. As the food technology improved, God, Himself, removes some of the food restrictions from the Law.

          What Jesus did was to provide a means of “salvation”. This was not the artificial “righteousness” which could keep you from punishment, but a guaranteed reward and removal of punishment.

          Thus, righteousness in behavior should be a goal, but it, as described in the Law, is no longer a requirement. The only requirement is whatever Jesus demands of us.

        9. “What Christians most often forget is how to read the whole Bible as the complete Word of God. For some, there is a misunderstanding that the Old Testament no longer applies to Christians. That would be a mistaken understanding because Jesus came to fulfill the “Law and the Prophets” (the Old Testament), but not to change a “jot or tittle” of it. Jesus did change some of the incorrect ways that the Jews were practicing the Law, but did not change the Law itself.
          His disciples were instructed on studying and preaching the Law and the Prophets in proper context, which is also what we need to do in 2015. For our question today, we need to ask ourselves how to have a holistic understanding of dealing with violence in context with both, the Old and New Testaments.”

          He’s the trained theologian. If you disagree, I’d suggest you take that up with him.

        10. Ok, sent him the question. I hope that the Law is not still a factor in the relationship with God, since parts of it are impossible to follow, and other parts would be impractical.

        11. He points out that Gentiles were not and are not bound by the Law, except for those portions which are an insult to God or damaging to Man. (Acts 15:28-29). Those who choose to follow the Law as a Jew are required to follow the whole Law, which would seem to be problematical in this day and culture.

        12. ??? No, the Law was given to the Israelites and them only. There never was any requirement for Gentiles to follow the Law. If someone other than a follower of Judaism WANTS to follow the Law, then they must follow it completely.

        13. I presume you are volunteering to prove a “fact” about God? I would love to find someone who could, but have not yet. Let’s stick with “the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which has maintained its correctness through time, cultural shift and translation”.

        14. “Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58, NKJV) This is Jesus Christ making an absolute reference to his incarnate nature. This reference was only used once before, when Moses asked who He should say has given him the Ten Commandments on the mountain. “Say IAM has sent me.” God speaking of Himself in the timeless and always present tense.

        1. What’s absurd? The idea that God can do anything he wants? He puts his spirit in those of us who believe we feel his presence. He is real. There is a wholeness, and you feel like you’re never alone.

        2. I’m just imagining being in a class room, as an academic-centred teacher (not a Jesus centred one) and saying to the students about to undertake the course leading to their exam ‘You need to already know the answer before I can teach you any of it.’

        1. I’m engaging in a philosophy exercise. I’d be cautious of attempts to think you understand me from the content of my posts. Or that you can even figure out how often I’m thinking about God.
          This post is about humanism and humanity. My next post (coming out next Wednesday), I think, is about my dog. (It may have also passed without any comment. I stopped writing about 2 months about but everything is just scheduled up.)

          Not only that, but I didn’t even mention God in my last comment to you, so how did I prove your point?
          (I’m concerned that is just a default response for when you have no other come back — but I’m happy to be proven wrong.)

  5. In keeping with the Title of your post, of course. “What is God?” you asked. Of course I respond in keeping with the subject. But I nevertheless did not expect a purely atheist philosophy conversation to include good spiritual conversation as well. That would take an unbiased perspective on your part.
    God bless

      1. Just a follow-up on his dodge about Falwell. This:

        You guys are fond of plucking these onesie-twosies out of the vast mass of America and saying, “See? See?”

        LOL!

        Liberty “University” is considered the leading Christian university in the United States. Ted Cruz made his announcement for his presidential run there just recently. George W. Bush made it a policy to hire Liberty graduates. Jeb Bush gave the 2015 commencement speech. Jerry Falwell is one of the central figureheads of Christianity in the United States.

        This is not some redneck Baptist pastor, but one of the central arteries of American Christianity, and he is calling upon his students to murder Muslims.

        But of course, this doesn’t fit your narrative, does it….

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