Who or What Is God? You Go First

And provide the evidence for your answer

Carl Sagan was in high demand as a public speaker, and during the Q&A periods, he reports that a common question was, “Do you believe in God?” His response was to ask a question:


“Because the word God means many things to many people, I frequently reply by asking what the questioner means by ‘God.’ To my surprise, this response is often considered puzzling or unexpected: ‘Oh you know, God. Everyone knows who God is.’ Or ‘Well, kind of a force that is stronger than we are and exists everywhere in the universe.’ There are a number of such forces. One of them is called gravity, but it is not often identified with God. And not everyone does know what is meant by ‘God.’ The concept covers a wide range of ideas.” (pp. 181-182, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science)


Oh you know, God. We live in a god-saturated culture. God in whom we can trust is on our money; the god whom we are under is in our pledge of allegiance; the Bible—god’s word—is in millions of hotel rooms. There are hundreds of thousands of churches built to the glory of god throughout the country. It’s hardly any wonder that people can say, Oh you know, God.


But, as Sagan noted, “The concept covers a wide range of ideas.” Just what do “average folks”—by which I mean those who show up at church—think god is? Even there, we would no doubt find a wide variety of views about who and what god is. But what is a common conception? Atheists are sometimes faulted for disputing naïve concepts of god, i.e., he’s an old man in the sky. But have many of the laity actually given up on that idea? In Christian art for centuries, that is exactly how god has been depicted. The favorite Christian prayer includes the words, “Our father, who art in heaven,” and “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s a reassuring, comforting idea of god—as a loving father—that we find in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” When I served in churches, it was common for the laity to refer to god as The Man Upstairs. Thus it was appropriate to sing songs of praise to him, and to initiate conversations with him, i.e., to pray. 


Professional theologians—those who are not fundamentalists or evangelicals—know that these ideas about god, based on ancient concepts of the cosmos, are not sustainable. They know that the old-man-in-the-sky-deity, who insists on being praised and glorified by humans, was modeled on tribal chieftains. That won’t do any more. But how to salvage god? That’s their challenge, no matter that billions of Christians continue to adore, worship, sing songs to The Man Upstairs. Theologians realize that a refined, sophisticated, nuanced concept of god is required if Christianity is not to be dismissed as an ancient cult superstition—which, unfortunately, it most assuredly is.  


In fact, for a long time theologians have been knocking the rough edges off the god portrayed in the Bible. This god required the death penalty for breaking the sabbath, but that rule was dropped; so many of the harsh rules of the Old Testament were rubbed out. All of the many regulations for correct animal sacrifice were abandoned after the Jerusalem temple—where animal sacrifice was big business—was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. Christian theology galloped off in the wrong direction when it embraced human sacrifice as its cornerstone, e.g., John 1:29, referencing Jesus: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Christian theology adopted a few extremes in attempting to create the best of all possible gods: its triune god was proclaimed to be all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-good (omnibenevolent). But this created too much tension: all-powerful and all-good cannot be reconciled when we see so much horrendous suffering in the world. Which means that Christian apologists have had to work overtime—an ongoing endeavor—to come up with excuses to make god look good. They do it because doubt is always gnawing around the edges, even among the most devout, who can identify with the man who, in great distress, yelled at Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)  


One way theologians, priests and preachers try to secure faith—when there are assaults from different directions—is to remind the devout that god is real because there had to have been a creator. That’s just common sense, right? The world just didn’t get here somehow: a god is behind it all; it’s no surprise that many human cultures have their myths depicting gods in the act of creating. 


Secular thinkers are quite right in suggesting that these stories are the product of human speculation and imagination: theologians have been making things up forever. And they pose this question to Christian theologians who are so confident that their god is the creator: Where did this god come from? “Well, god just always was, god is eternal—that’s the nature of reality!”  Bertrand Russell wasn’t convinced. He suggested that it is just as easy to believe in a cosmos that has aways existed, as it is to believe in a god that has always existed. 


Moreover, Christian theologians who insist on the necessity for a creator god are stuck with two problems: 


(1) Even if cosmologists find evidence for a creator god, how can theologians prove that their god-related doctrines—so many of which assign human-like characteristics to god—apply to a creative force that cosmologists might identify? How would they be able to determine that? Establish it beyond doubt? Many theologians are sure that god has personality and emotions, (modeled, obviously, on human personality and emotions). Is that what cosmologists are likely to find in a force that ignited the Cosmos some 13 billion years ago? 


(2) Cosmologists have been researching/studying cosmic origins for quite some time now—using increasingly sophisticated space-based instruments—and achieving amazing insights (for example, check out the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe). But so far there has been no hint that a god is discernable.


Best practice: follow the work of those who are looking for hard data, i.e., cosmologists, astronomers, physicists. Don’t pay attention to the speculations of theologians who have an agenda, namely to preserve, protect, and defend god-ideas that derive from the ancient world.


Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Sean M. Carroll contributed a brief essay on the tension between science and religion in the anthology by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.  

Carroll sees the uselessness of addressing silly ideas about god:


“The God with a beard might be what a typical churchgoer has in mind, but theologians have a much more nuanced view of the nature of divinity… if atheists want to claim to be right, they should attack the strongest version of their opponents’ position—the most philosophically and logically sophisticated formulations of the concept of ‘God.’ One problem is that even that is a notoriously slippery construct. Great minds have been arguing for millennia about what God is supposed to mean, without reaching much of a consensus.” (pp. 105-106)


All this falls into the category what Carroll calls theological God—as opposed to the old-man-god-in-heaven cherished by the people who show up at church. Theologians favor abstract definitions of god that would puzzle churchgoers. For example, Paul Tillich’s positioning god as “the ground of all being.” Carroll mentions others:


“But—if we take atheists to be scientifically minded materialists, used to describing the world in terms of empirically testable models—phrases like ‘necessary being’ or ‘essence of life’ or ‘condition of possibility’ resist straightforward rebuttal, simply because it’s difficult to put a finger on what is being talked about.” (p. 106)


I have long referred to theological shoptalk as theobabble: the piling on of abstractions, subtleties, obfuscations to divert attention from the incoherence in Christian theology. Most laypeople, of course, have no idea what this theological discourse means—in fact, they are largely unaware that theologians are hard at work on such things. Theologians write for other theologians. How many lay people have read Karl Barth's 13-volume Church Dogmatics


Carroll addresses the first cause argument, i.e., that the universe had to have a deity to get it up and running. In our ordinary lives, cause and effect are taken for granted, but does that apply on the cosmic level? 


“…at a deeper level of elementary particles obeying the laws of physics, the complete history of the universe can be readily computed from the state at any one time. And where does this leave the cosmological argument? In a shambles, as far as revealing profound truth about the universe is concerned. There is no division of beings into ‘contingent’ and ‘necessary,’ no fundamental distinction between effects and causes. There is only the universe, obeying its laws. That is a complete, self-sufficient description of reality. And no need for God.” (p. 109)


At the end of the essay, Carroll refers to the “impersonal machinery of a purely material cosmos.”


“…to many of us, there is nothing discomforting about that impersonal machinery. The universe is, and part of our job is to discover exactly what it is. Another part of our job is to live in it, and construct meaning and depth from the shape of our lives. Once we adopt that point of view, the arguments for God seem like little more than excess baggage to be discarded without regret. It’s a big, cold, pointless universe. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.” (pp. 110-111)


A few years before Carroll wrote this essay, he published a much longer one, titled, Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists. There we find a detailed examination of the issues relating to cosmic origins. I recommend this as basic homework for gaining insight into how and what cosmologists are researching and exploring. His conclusion in worth citing:

“Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description. In the various ways in which God might have been judged to be a helpful hypothesis—such as explaining the initial conditions for the universe, or the particular set of fields and couplings discovered by particle physics—there are alternative explanations which do not require anything outside a completely formal, materialist description. I am therefore led to conclude that adding God would just make things more complicated, and this hypothesis should be rejected by scientific standards. It’s a venerable conclusion, brought up to date by modern cosmology; but the dialogue between people who feel differently will undoubtedly last a good while longer.”

Of course, it will last a good while longer. 

Carroll and his colleagues are searching for reliable, verifiable, objective evidence about cosmic origins. The agenda of theologians is to preserve doctrines in which they have heavy emotional investment; they are not about to give up on their creator/savior god. They shrink in horror at the prospect of “a big, cold, pointless universe”—which obliterates the hope of gaining eternal life. Perhaps some theologians are aware of what cosmologists are up to—and will make a stab at dialogue—but it’s likely that most of the laity are not. They are quite happy with their Father in Heaven. The Man Upstairs. They ignore most of what the Bible itself has to say about their god. Lack of curiosity about the cosmos is hardly a surprise.  



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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