What is a god? July 2, 2009Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: god, god of the gaps, Stephen F. Roberts, theology, zeus
I was having a conversation yesterday while out at The Devil’s Alley on Chestnut St. with some friends. As I sat down, I discovered a conversation about “higher powers,” and my ears perked up. What is a god? That was the question.
A good question it is. As a general rule, I don’t define what a god is. I believe that I should listen to what someone tells me they think their god is and answer whether I think such a being exists. In general, the answer is no. But sometimes, someone’s definition of god is more than a little different than the general concept of an omnimax being (omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc). In this context, someone presented a definition of ‘god’ as something that has power over him. I thought that this was a bit vague, so I asked if an alien being were to visit that had great power (technology that would seem like magic to us, for example) would that being be considered a god? He said yes.
This led me to thinking. Has the concept of god become so pushed back to a logical construct or vague power in discussions of theology so much that when I run into more primitive concepts of god they don’t even seem god-like? Take for example the ancient Greek gods. Zeus, the ruler of Olympus, was not an all powerful being responsible for the creation of the universe or even omniscient. He was a powerful being that could kick your ass, perhaps, but he was nothing like the God of modern theology. Would Zeus be considered a god in the theological discussions of today?
My immediate response to this claim that powerful aliens would be considered gods was to say that this definition was too vague and inclusive to be legitimate. This is largely because my atheism, admittedly a reaction to people’s theological ideas, is a lack of belief in a concept of god that transcends mere power over me or greater than me. It is a rejection of a being of ultimate power, presence, and knowledge as is defined by most religious traditions. I do not reject belief in powers greater than me (although I don’t believe in aliens, due to the lack of evidence for them so far) but in the concept of a being that created everything, is all powerful, etc.
There is nothing automatically metaphysically problematic with the idea of powerful beings that exist. Granted, we don’t have the means to replicate this power now, but we may in the future. Being a bit of a sci-fi fan, I could refer to Q (Star Trek), The Ancients (Stargate), The Protectorate (Power; ahem…**shameless plug**) and other such beings that look god-like from a certain point of view. But are these things gods?
If we were to develop technology that would give us these types of powers, would we become gods? Now, Mormons and Scientologists possibly aside, I don’t think that such things are the same type of question as we talk about in the question of whether a god exists or not. If some people are using the term ‘god’ in a non-traditional fashion then I think that there might be room for some discussion, but a different one than what I typically have.
The problem with having a definition of god that can include things like aliens is that where is the line drawn? I don’t want to evoke a fallacy here, but there should be some line where above it is a god and below is something else. I don’t know where that line is, but I think that some baseline attributes need to be considered. What those attributes are…that’s a discussion for another day, perhaps.
Here’s an extreme example. If someone were to define their coffee cup as god, and then show me this coffee cup, then I cannot be an atheist rationally concerning that person’s god because I have good empirical evidence that it exists. But is this legitimate? Is this definition of ‘god’ (the coffee cup) too much of a redefinition of the concept of ‘god’ to be considered to make me me no longer an atheist?
What about a powerful alien, like in Star Trek V where the crew is hijacked and taken to the center of the galaxy where they meet a powerful being that claims to be the God of various traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. But the being ends up just being some powerful alien and ‘Bones’ calls him on this facade and they manage to escape. So, was this being a god (even if it wasn’t the specific god it claimed to be)?
I think that maybe the concept of what a god is has changed somewhat over the centuries. I think that this is because the more we understand how nature works, the smaller the domain of the supernatural becomes. Where Zeus was once a god, the role of Zeus is now no-longer supernatural. Thus, the gods of today are transcendent and invisible. Perhaps as they always were, at least since the days of the pre-Socratic philosophers, but even today we push back the supernatural with every advance in cosmology, biology, and neurology (among other fields).
The “God of the gaps” gets smaller and smaller.
Thus I will leave it as a general rule to allow those I meet to define their god, and I will leave it to them to largely be unable to do so. In fact, this is one of the reasons I am an atheist; theists almost never have a solid definition of what god is (and not just it’s name and what it had done, but what it is). And they want me to believe in it?
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
–Stephen F. Roberts