September 02, 2005

The fear of God

I do not believe in God. That's not an absence of belief, it's a belief. I believe, strongly, that there is no God, there is no such thing as God, there is nothing in existence that can be described as God. I do not "happen" to disbelieve in God: there is no "happen" involved, unless the Creator, on His Mighty Whim, chose to endow me, for a Laugh, with a strong dense of disbelief in His Own Existence. However, He did not. He could not have, since He does not exist.

In truth, it is more than a belief, though Thought For The Day would have you believe that it is less. It is more than a belief because it is a scientific opinion, based on observation, based on an understanding of the nature and origins of the universe. It cannot, as far as I can see, be verified, but it could, one supposes, be disproven. It adheres to the principle set out by Popper: at very least, it applies the principle set out by William of Occam. There is no reason to postulate a God in preference to assuming his absence, since to do so is simply to complicate the problem, to introduce an extra element. There is no reason for God, except for the service performed in fulfilling our fears, in satisfying our emotional needs. There is no reason in science or in rational thought to think that a God-being exists. There is no God.

Still, how much harm does it do to believe in God? Little enough, just left at that. We all think irrational things and believe things we should not. If one of these is God, what of it? In itself it is rather less harmless than the belief that you might win the Lottery. It is like a pub discussion on whether Godzilla would beat King Kong in a fight: your influence over the outcome is nil, your chance of finding out the answer rates no higher. Where there is no influence, there is no harm. It's not belief in God that matters. It's belief that God is good.

For where, one wonders, would that come from? Why would God be good? What would good mean anyway, in the context of God? Why would an entity so different to us in scope and nature share our conception of good, or have such a conception in the first place? Why would that good apply to us? You can speculate about it, but you cannot prove it, or demonstrate it, or even give any reason why it is any more than a hypothesis absent of substance. Yet people do more than that. They bow their heads. They kneel. They prostate themselves. They pray. They spend their lives in such a manner. They do all these things on the basis that, so they say, God is good.

It would be more truthful to say that they do so on the basis that God is powerful. He is all-powerful, therefore we must appease him, worship him, butter him up, flatter him as one might fawn over a monarch or a rich man. (I am prepared to do all these things for a benefit of a cat, for a cat has substance, but to do them for God?)

The fundamental reason for declaring God good is that God is powerful. We praise him because we fear him. What He does is good, not because it is good but because we declare whatever God does to be good. It is God's free pass. It is his amnesty. It is his ticket to ride.

What a magnificent scam, you may think. Any of us would love to have the same exemption for an afternoon. Who knows how many enemies we could dispose of, how much looting we could carry out and be praised for our great love and wisdom when we did so. It would be wonderful. This, perhaps, is really why people start their own religions, not so much for the money as for the impunity. For that, in truth, is God. He is not good. He is impunity. He is right in whatever he does, and must be thanked for it.

The most appalling, the most self-destructive example of this I ever came across in person was the novice I met in a psychiatric institution five years back, this very month. She suffered, appallingly, grotesquely, from depression. For which, she told me, she thanked God. She thanked God for letting her experience the agonies of depression. She actually thanked God for letting her experience the agonies of depression. No parody of religion could possibly have been so frightening or so grotesque.

One can, I suppose, expect no better from a religion whose most holy symbol is a man dying in agony while crucified on a cross. But the fault, at root, is the conception of God as good. If what he does is good, then those who suffer must be evil. Or they must benefit, in some way, from their suffering. The novice benefitted from her agonies. The bearer of a cancer either benefits from their destruction or has merited their pain.

There is, of course - this is another benefit, another Special Recommended Feature of divine impunity - no need to explain why any of this is good. It just is. One cannot discuss Celestial Ethics. One cannot find them wanting. This does not, naturally, prevent the advocates of God (all self-appointed, naturally, as a non-existent entity can hardly appoint advocates of his own) from making it their business - making it, literally, their business, their living and employment - to tell us daily what is good and what is not in the eyes of the Deity. Let the Deity, however, carry out an act that otherwise we would consider supreme wickedness - the aforesaid cancer, say, or a tsunami, or the drowning of New Orleans - and suddenly the rules are changed. Rather than knowing the will of God, we cannot know the will of God.

We are, however, permitted to speculate upon his motives. Does he punish, or are his motives beyond mere human reason to understand? (If they are beyond mere human reason, one might ask, if we don't understand why he's done it, then what's the point in doing it?) After the tsunami I was travelling on a London bus - a popular location, it seems, for religious encounters - when two or three men came up to the top deck and invited the weary travellers to consider their likely fate. Specifically, as I recall, the fate of Britain, in its wickedness. In the light of the destruction that the wave had wreaked.

If one were to follow the logic of these emissaries, they must surely mean that the tens of thousands who had drowned on the fringes of the Indian Ocean must, therefore, have deserved it. Must have done something to deserve it. But, in their generosity - or in the generosity of the God they served - they said that they didn't actually know that. Indeed, they weren't even saying that. "We cannot know", they said, "whether this was sent by God as a punishment". It just might have been. God's motives and purposes were, just for once, unclear.

I assumed, therefore, that what they were trying to sell me was Pascal's Wager: that we should repent just in case the tsunami was the anger of a vengeful God, his thirst for human blood not entirely sated by his activities in Genesis. I refrained however, from debating the point with them, not least because I was too busy restraining myself from making the point that I really wanted to: how dare your God, your murderous God, wipe out all those innocent people? And how dare you come onto this bus and justify this foul and evil entity?

But the question, of course, could not be asked. Because it is not open to question, whether God is good. God is good. He is good, by virtue of being God. And we call him good, not because he is, but because we fear him.

They fear him, in Louisiana, in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge. For only fear of God can explain the prayer of the mayor's emergency co-ordinator, Irma Plummer. It is a bizarre and terrying prayer, and it has disturbed me as much as any of the sights I have seen of the devastation inflicted on the poor of New Orleans. In the field of religion it has disturbed me as much as anything I have come across since my conversation without the novice.

Ms Plummer's prayer proceeded thus:
You have reminded us of how strong you are and we yield and acknowledge that.

Right now, Father, we pray first for your protection and your grace which is unceasing and unfailing ... I don't even know what to ask for today, Lord. I don't even know what will beset us today.
That first line. Read that first line and ask yourself what it means. You have reminded us of how strong you are and we yield and acknowledge that. It means God has done this. It means God has inflicted this on us. It means we bow before your might, O Lord. It means God is Great.

God, it is acknowledged, is the cause of their misfortune. Of their dispossession, of their disease, of the deaths of their friends and relatives. So how shall we respond to this monstrous act, this declaration of war? We shall respond by saying what we know to be entirely untrue. We pray first for your protection and your grace which is unceasing and unfailing.

We do what? We pray first for your protection? Who from? From God himself? We pray to the murderer to protect us from his propensity to murder? Shall we really? Can you think of anything more stupid in the world than that? And how shall he provide this protection? With his protection and [his] grace which is unceasing and unfailing. Is it? Is it really? In what possible sense is it either unceasing or unfailing?

It could not have ceased more, it could not have failed more, if some Supreme Repo Man had come round earlier, waved a few unpaid bills and an authorisation from the baliffs and had cut off the supply of divine grace and heavenly protection. There has been no more grace and protection in New Orleans these past two days than there has been drinking water. Not, anyway, from God. From each other, maybe. But not from the sadistic and vengeful and murderous God.

So, why pray to this God, why beseech him, why seek his grace, why petition his pleasure? For no other reason than that he is sadistic and vengeful and murderous. That is why. At your peril, you fail to flatter the rich man. At your own risk, you forget to genuflect in front of the King. We call those good who we fear. Were they good, we would have no need to fear them. But we call God good because we fear that he is not. We fear him. We fear him in every way.

So our sacrifices to him - our sacrifices of intelligence, of sense, of self-respect - are made for the very same reason, the reason as old as the existence of human society, that human beings have always invented Gods and praised them. The same reason the caveman made sacrifices to the Sun God for fear that the Sun God might not rise. We praise them because we fear what they may do. Please don't kill me, we grovel at their feet. We kneel to them and beg: please let me live.

I am not as disinclined as once I was to accept that. Sometimes it is necessary to live upon one's knees. Everybody kneels, and everyone beseeches. But I draw the line at kneeling to God. Because among all the kings and tyrants, among all the despots and destroyers who have ever lived, God stands out for one reason above all. Not in the extent of his destruction, nor even in the longevity of his wickedness, great though they are. No, he stands out because of all of them, he is the only one who does not exist. Like the Urban Spaceman, he does not exist. Unlike all those other kings and despots, he is not even worth begging for your life.

The Mayor's emergency co-ordinator is wasting her time. Just like the caveman with his Sun God, she is wasting her time. She fears God, all right. You have reminded us of how strong you are. Fear is her motive and fear is at the forefront of her mind. But she is wasting her time in fearing this particular God. For while it is a vengeful God, while it is indeed an angry God, it is an impotent and pointless God as well. A God can do and undo nothing, when he does not exist. It is a God who cannot even save you from what he has done. So what earthly good is praying to a God like that?


At September 02, 2005 4:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At September 02, 2005 6:12 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

Welcome back Justin.

Whether or not I agree with you, whether or not I am as interested in the topic as you, I always enjoy reading your blog.

I'm curious, though, as to why religion gets under your skin so much.

for the record, Godzilla could have King Kong any day of the week.

At September 02, 2005 8:11 pm, Anonymous Sean said...

Yes! Get in! He's back and never mind the length, feel the quality!

Erm. Enough of that. Anyway, I think it may have been Jonathan Miller, or perhaps Richard Dawkins, or maybe even Christopher Hitchens who declared that they refuse the term atheist because that implies there is something to reject. Whoever it was preferred the term anti-theist. I agree with him, whoever he is, and you. A superb piece of writing once again.

At September 02, 2005 8:29 pm, Anonymous CP said...

I believe there is a God.
I fear there might not be a God but I do not fear God himself.

Glad you are back.

At September 04, 2005 1:06 pm, Blogger Looter said...

I thought Star Trek: Voyager was all about the moral choices facing God. But I may have misunderstood it.

At September 04, 2005 1:22 pm, Anonymous atp said...

Was Ms.Plummer taking a leaf out of the book of Job?
Not any consolation to the suffering people I am sure.

At September 04, 2005 5:55 pm, Anonymous broke said...

Great post - says a lot of what I've wanted to say but not always been able to.
Re the novice in the asylum: I used to be a member of a fundamentalist church, and have also had a lifelong battle with mental illness. I seem to remember being encouraged to thank god for all manner of appalling things. But also, and possibly even more self-destructive, I was enouraged to believe that demons had possessed me and that they needed exorcising. Hence I had regular 'deliverance' sessions, in which various people layed hands on me and shouted at the devil to 'get out'... If I hadn't already been struggling with illness that could well have brought it on..

Best wishes,

At September 06, 2005 12:21 am, Anonymous isakofsky said...

I've just been making an atheist/humanist video for use in British schools and one of the episodes consists of me talking to some seventeen and eighteen year olds who attend a Roman Catholic school in London. When confronted with some of your arguments here, particularly those to do with misfortune, they had an easy get-out clause: God knows best. So, no matter how bad the disaster is (whether this be personal, city-wide, nation-wide or even global)God's got it figured. God's in there testing and challenging, offering up new solutions etc etc. How do we know this? Because those clever people in my church/synagogue/mosque called vicars, priests, rabbis, imams etc know God really well. That's all they've got. It's a belief system hermetically sealed against such criticism.

Of course, if we're being shrinky about it, we can say that it stems from a need for support. People simply do not believe in humanity - which is to be expected when we all live in societies that in one way or another fuck you over. So, much easier to believe in something you can't see but has your best interest at heart and knows YOU personally.

I lost my son through illness five years ago. I was walking through the streets when a friend stopped off his motorbike. Jeez he was sorry for me. Then I said, kind of ironically, 'thank God I don't believe in God!' He got all shirty and said, 'what dyu mean?' I said, I'd be in real trouble trying to figure out why the bastard would do such a thing to me.' He got back on his motorbike and said, that it really isn't like that. Hell, he had his kid circumcised even though he married 'out'! Gd luck

At September 06, 2005 10:06 am, Blogger JPD said...

Welcome back. Excellent post as always.

(Have just seen your comment on my now defunct blog (me being too lazy to post!). Yes we did indeed attend same purported "educational" establishment 20 very odd years ago, amazed that you guessed! Keep up the good work, best read of the day.)

At December 30, 2007 12:23 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The crucified is not a man, he's God -- that's kind of the whole point. If you missed that, it's small wonder you don't get any of the rest either. Don't get me wrong, I've been an atheist since I was 15 (David Attenborough [stet?] has a lot to answer for): if you're "agin the Church", fine; but don't erect straw men.

At December 31, 2007 10:14 am, Blogger ejh said...

Well, it's not the whole point, since Christians, in a variety of ways, insist that Jesus was, in fact, God made man. So that he did, in reality, suffer and die on the Cross. Which seems to me to make a nonsense of your point.

At January 10, 2008 11:38 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Justin, it was you who wrote:

"One can, I suppose, expect no better from a religion whose most holy symbol is a man dying in agony while crucified on a cross."

I merely pointed out that the crucified is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and so emphatically NOT just "a man". As you point out, he was man as well as God, but this does not address the point at all: the fact remains that the most holy symbol of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic is (and I'm paraphrasing) a God who loved mankind so much he sent his only son (who was also himself) to die so that we might be saved.

No, I don't believe it a word of it either; but don't caricature it.


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