Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Very interesting question: Does it matter whether God exists?

with 7 comments

The NY Times has an intriguing column by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame:

Discussions of religion are typically about God. Atheists reject religion because they don’t believe in God; Jews, Christians and Muslims take belief in God as fundamental to their religious commitment. The philosopher John Gray, however, has recently been arguing that belief in God should have little or nothing to do with religion. He points out that in many cases — for instance, “polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions” — belief is of little or no importance. Rather, “practice — ritual, meditation, a way of life — is what counts.” He goes on to say that “it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” and that “what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.”

Even if God is powerful enough to save the souls of the devout, and loving enough to want to, he still might not.

The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need. But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death.

If our hope is for salvation in this sense — and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs’ being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, it depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

But here we come to a point that is generally overlooked in debates about theism, which center on whether there is reason to believe in God, understood as all-good and all-powerful. Suppose that the existence of such a God could be decisively established. Suppose, for example, we were to be entirely convinced that a version of the ontological argument, which claims to show that the very idea of an all-perfect being requires that such a being exist, is sound. We would then be entirely certain that there is a being of supreme power and goodness. But what would this imply about our chances for eternal salvation? . . .

Continue reading. I find the idea intriguing—it to some extent rhymes with my notion that it’s important to observe your behavior and draw conclusions from that rather than from your motives for the behavior: what matters is what you do, not the reason for it.

UPDATE: It would be interesting indeed if God judged people purely from their actions and words, without regard to their thoughts and motivations (and prayers): just looking at what actually happens. Wonder if under that idea the populations of Heaven and Hell would change…

Written by Leisureguy

23 March 2012 at 9:57 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. It was this kind of thinking which drew me to particular types of Zen Buddhism years back. The way I understood it, Zen did not have tenets that one must believe. Certainly not supernatural ones. It did have a behavioral prescription: meditate, in this precise way. That’s all. And what you’ll get out of it? Nothing. It promised to give you absolutely nothing that you didn’t already have. There were, therefore, no goals–just doing.



    23 March 2012 at 12:07 pm

  2. You speak of “my notion that it’s important to observe your behavior and draw conclusions from that rather than from your motives for the behavior.” I doubt that you really believe that. Suppose, for example that I, with a look of rage on my face, came up to you and spit in your face. Then suppose, on the other hand, that you were holding an infant who spits in your face. Same action, same wet face. The only difference would be motive. I suspect the two spittings, differing only in motive, would elicit quite different reactions from you.

    In my opinion, were we to cease to take motive into account, it would make human society as we know it impossible. In our interactions with one another, consideration of motives serves to buffer conflict far more often that it serves to exacerbate it. Thus, failure to take motives into account would lead to a more or less continual state of conflict, from individuals all the way up to nations.

    I”m sure you are aware that Christianity says the opposite of what you propose, teaching very specifically that God judges the heart (motives), more than actions. Thus, in His eyes, the person who hates you so much he would gladly kill you, but who refrains only out of fear of the consequences to himself, is a murderer, though he never pulls a trigger. On the other hand, the person who has his Dick Cheney moment, and shoots you accidentally, is not.

    If God judged only actions and not motives, the populations of heaven and hell would not be reversed – we’d all be in hell. The Bible puts it this way: “For ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

    The problem with John Gray’s musings is that he starts at the wrong end of the stick, with humans rather than with God. If God actually exists, then the terms of His relationship with humanity are entirely as He sets them. Thus, humans don’t really have the choice of whether “religion” must include belief in God. If God exists, and He declares that a right relationship with Himself requires such belief, what humans think about it is irrelevant. If He communicates to humanity His terms of relationship, as Christians claim God has done in the Bible, people can accept them or not – but they don’t get to define them.



    22 May 2012 at 10:03 pm

  3. Yes, I’ve read that the Christian version of God does take motives into account, presumably “true” motives rather than the confused mix of emotions and habits that drive most human actions. However, I’ve always found it remarkably easy to see that none of us are God, so how God decides probably doesn’t apply, though I appreciate the information.

    The point about others is that we can never really know the motive—and quite often, the actors themselves may not know or understand their motives—example: study any adolescent. Moreover, in examining one’s own motives, one falls prey to rationalizations and excuses and ego-driven delusions. People often are quite shocked when they hear their own behavior described in objective terms since they were viewing their behavior through the gauzy curtain of their motives, which served as a distraction and allowed self-delusion (e.g., that they were not really embezzling, they were just borrowing the money for a while, because they really don’t have a choice, and they’ll pay it back as soon as they can, and they need just a little more, etc…. That’s the line of thought when people are trying to avoid looking directly at what they’re doing).

    Interesting that you suggest the study should begin with God rather than humans. You do see, do you not, that we have access to humans and thus can study them, but the study of God (theology) presents substantially more difficulties: we don’t have immediate access, we can’t do comparative studies or controlled experiments, and in general we are constantly reminded that we cannot understand God or His reasons for doing things. “Beyond human understanding” is a phrase you’ve doubtless heard. So to begin the study with God seems, forgive me, sort of silly: we cannot understand God or His reasons.

    Indeed, in the Christian system of beliefs, God actually came to earth and tried to explain things, and you see how that worked out: 2000 years of bloody battle among Christians. And even His most clear injunctions—such as “love each other”, “do not divorce”, “avoid wealth”—I daily see Christians ignore. Look in this country at how (say) Muslims are treated by Christians, who will not even allow the Muslims to erect their mosques, despite Constitutional guarantees. The “Bible belt” of the most Christian states has the highest divorce rate. Christians today seem to ignore the injunctions against wealth—despite sound science that indicates why God may have issued the injunction (namely, wealth and even thoughts of wealth have a corrosive effect on moral and ethical behavior—quite a few experiments have proved this).

    I think we have a great deal to learn by studying humans, and in any event, those are what we have access to, so they’ll have to do. The good news is that we’re learning a lot.



    23 May 2012 at 5:21 am

  4. LeisureGuy – Let me recast your comment slightly. As you are deciding how best to fix your shakey financial situation, you reply to some advice from a friend, “However, I’ve always found it remarkably easy to see that none of us are Judges, so how a Judge decides probably doesn’t apply, though I appreciate the information.” If you are a rational being contemplating actions that may bring you before a judge, you certainly do understand that what a judge thinks applies. It is only if you believe that you will never stand before a judge that you think his reactions are irrelevant. So, your statement is a personal one, conditioned on the assumption that you will never stand before God. Since the great mass of humanity does not share that view, its relevance as a recommended approach to understanding reality is limited.

    Human beings do, in fact, assess their own motives, and they do so with more rigor when they understand that those motives will be objectively judged. It’s like (and maybe you don’t have this problem) not really seeing the state your house is in until the doorbell rings and you know you will have visitors. Suddenly you see things in an entirely different light. The knowledge that God looks upon the heart has, for those who truly accept the fact that He is the ultimate Judge of their destiny, a substantial impact on behavior.

    The observation that many who are identified as Christians don’t act like it is one that most actual Christians fully agree with. Aside from the fact that none of us achieves 100% consistency between our actions and our belief systems, you may be aware that biblical Christianity is defined not with regard to a cultural label or membership in some church, but by an actual change of heart toward God, with a resulting change of heart toward other people. Jesus said that the proportion of the real to the professed is “only a few.” Since only God can look on the heart, the closest we can come to identifying Christians is by assessing the conformity between behavior and what the faith teaches. Thus, to assess the reality of God based on actions of some who claim affiliation with Him but behave in ways that substantially differ from what He commands doesn’t make sense. It suffers from the same flaw as Gray’s approach: it starts with humans rather than with God.

    You say, “the study of God (theology) presents substantially more difficulties: we don’t have immediate access, we can’t do comparative studies or controlled experiments, and in general we are constantly reminded that we cannot understand God or His reasons for doing things.”

    Same flaw here. You start with humans as the first actors, who can only use a methodology devised for investigating the physical world (the scientific method) to try to understand a more-than-physical cosmos. By doing so, you inherently limit yourself to findings that can be ascertained and verified in physical terms. On the other hand, one might start with God, on the assumption that He, if He exists, will have devised some method of communicating His existence and nature to humanity. It becomes a different sort of investigation, based on different fundamental assumptions.

    My point is that the limitations you see with theology as the study of God are self imposed due to a naturalistic outlook. Someone bringing a different set of presuppositions to the table (unproven assumptions we all have) reaches a different conclusion, not because the first view is more “reasonable” or is dictated by reality while the other is “just faith,” but because of what is essentially a fundamental choice about whether God or self is at the center of the universe.



    23 May 2012 at 9:44 am

  5. Neither I nor any of my friends have ever taken the position that a judge is beyond human understanding—even judges like Scalia and Thomas are (alas) only to easy to understand. But (as I understand it) God is beyond human understanding—at least I’m told that pretty often. Big difference between a human judge and God, don’t you think? A difference of kind?

    I certainly agree with the second paragraph and that describes pretty much what I was trying to say: when people look at their actual behavior, objectively as others would see it rather than embedded in their motivations and intentions, they can sometimes be shocked by what they see (which is, after all, how others view them, seeing only their behavior and not privy to their private thoughts).

    I’m not saying, you’ve doubtless noted, that people are (or should be) unaware of their motives and intentions. I’m suggesting, as a supplementary exercise, viewing their own behavior (also) without consideration of motives and intentions and seeing what they think of the naked behavior, as it were. It just occurred to me that you may have mistakenly assumed that people should look at things only one way, which would of course be idiotic. That is not what I’m saying.

    I pretty much base my conclusions on what “Christian behavior” is by seeing how Christians behave. That is Christian behavior, is it not? The manner in which Christians conduct themselves? Certainly that’s how Christians judge, say, Muslim behavior. Otherwise, you would be in the awkward position of not being able to make conclusions about anyone’s behavior, and that’s not what we do, in fact.

    Probably a God could indeed communicate well with people, but that hasn’t happened yet. Pretty much what I see is that religions agree on one thing only: all the other religions are false but this one (whichever you pick) is true. And someone one is supposed simply to accept that. And I see that you have. I don’t.

    What makes you think the universe has a center?



    23 May 2012 at 9:58 am

  6. “God is beyond human understanding.” Of course He is. So is any other human being besides ourselves – and maybe not ourselves! But we as humans provide relevant self-revelation so that others can deal with us in a rational way. So does God. Christians believe He does it, first of all as the Bible claims, through the existence and design of creation, then, to provide the needed level of detail and specificity, through the Bible itself.

    You can’t characterize “Christian behavior” without reference to Christian teachings because most who call themselves Christians are, by biblical definition, not Christian at all. Those whose behavior differs substantially from what the God of the Bible requires should not be used to define “Christian behavior.”

    “Probably a God could indeed communicate well with people, but that hasn’t happened yet.” Yet millions believe (whether in the case of their particular religion, rightly or wrongly) that He has. So, this, again, is a personal opinion, not any kind of statement of objective fact.

    Final chimerical thoughts:

    About people looking at their own naked behavior. Do you mean something like: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!”?

    “Religions agree on one thing only: all the other religions are false.” C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, made the point that there is quite a bit on which all religions agree. He called it the Tao, a set of universal values arising from what we today would call Natural Law.

    “What makes you think the universe has a center?” I know you understand what I meant by “center of the universe” and are just being facetious. But in reality, if the Big Bang is true, the point where the bang went off is the actual geographical center of the universe.



    23 May 2012 at 11:53 am

  7. The Robert Burns comment is exactly what I was trying to say: others see only our behavior (including words), but all that internal process that enraptures us—our hopes, dreams, fears, plans, needs, etc.—are in general hidden. So it makes sense to look at our behavior from the outside, as it were, to view it as others would see it. I certainly did not intend to imply or suggest that this should be the *only* way to observe one’s behavior, but it’s certainly useful and it does prevent a certain amount of self-deception (or at least offers the opportunity). It works well with journaling, since on reading passages of what you did a month or so ago, you’re unlikely to be able to recall your reasons and motivations at the time so you have a better chance of judging your behavior as an onlooker.

    You’ve got a good point that there is much on which religions agree (beyond that the others are false); indeed, now that you point it out, it makes sense: all religions are operating in the same universe and physical reality, and they are all dealing with the same sort of animal (though cultural differences can make for quite alien points of view), so there should indeed be a lot of overlap. Indeed, it would be a bad sign were there not.

    Yes, you’re right: I was referring to the physical center of the universe but rather to the search for a single truth or some such: a “center” that brings everything into focus. I doubt that such a thing exists. Rather there seem to be different domains of knowledge that use different methods, have different goals, but still exist within the amazing range of human culture—say, Italian sonnets as a domain, or improvisational jazz, or low-temperature physics, or managing classroom behavior. Big range.

    I agree that to denote something as a communication from God is indeed a personal opinion, and as such, doesn’t offer a way to resolve differences. I’ve often mentioned that the lack of a decision-making procedure (as we have in science—using experiments; in law—using the courts, judge, and jury; in chess—plyaing a game; and so on) means that religious disagreements cannot be settled (save by force, the method most often used).

    I dismiss as silly your notion that all Christian behavior is good because when Christians do bad things they miraculously stop being Christians during that behavior, while all good behavior is as Christians. In other words, your thumb is heavy on the scale.

    Take a more reasonable view: look at people who strongly consider themselves Christians and would probably punch you in the nose (or at least, cut you dead) if you intimated that they were not Christians. Look at their behavior. On the whole it’s massively intolerant, I find. But of course I go on what I see.

    Thanks for commenting.



    23 May 2012 at 12:10 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: