The most public atheist in the world these days is the brilliant, British scientist–Dr. Richard Dawkins. (Penn & Teller may give him a run for the title, though.)
I have enjoyed reading the books by Dr. Dawkins. He keeps believers honest. “Reason” is a reasonable thing for atheists to expect from believers.
We live in an age where much of what people used to believe about God–we now know is nonsense.
*It used to be that church leaders thought putting a lightning rod on the roof of a church meant they lacked faith. “If God wants to protect this building, He will.”
*It used to be that people thought the Bubonic Plague was punishment. They would hold religious parades petitioning God for relief.
*It used to be that men and women of nonconformist behavior were thought to be possessed by the devil. They were treated by either being dunked repeatedly in a tank of water, or by outright being burned to death.
We live in an age where a lot more is known about why things happen. It is reasonable for atheists to expect believers to use reason.
One piece of logic that Dr. Dawkins often invokes is: In the past, people believed in many, many gods. Norse gods. Roman gods. The names of our weekdays testify. In the version of Latin that is now French, the week days are called
Lundi (named for the Moon)
Dimanche (finally, a nod to Christianity–“Day of the Lord”)
In English, our weekdays carry Saxon names that are taken from Norse mythology:
Tuesday (from the Norse god Tyr, the god of law)
Wednesday (Woden, from the Norse god Odin, father of all the gods)
Thursday (Thor. the god of thunder)
Friday (named for the Norse goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin)
Sunday (the Sun)
All of these gods are no longer believed in. Dr. Dawkins concludes, there’s only one more god to go!
But even for believers, who can not imagine jettisoning God as the final, pagan superstition, there still is one more god to go.
The last “false god”–is indeed one of the firmest beliefs ABOUT God. And that is, that God has everything under control. All that happens–ultimately–is under God’s rule. The Supreme Being can’t be trumped. Whatever happens, ultimately, if not God’s direct will, it is at least God’s leave. Because God is supreme.
This is the most difficult notion about God for most believers to give up.
The difficulty is two things:
For one, it’s in the Bible.
Secondly, it’s incomprehensible in monotheism for anything to seem beyond God’s control.
There used to be a belief in ancient times that competed with early Christianity–called “Manicheism.” A believer in Manicheism was at one time–Augustine! This most famous Father of the Church, living in the 4th Century, at first believed that the world was equally divided between a good spirit vs. an evil spirit. That’s why bad things happened.
Augustine eventually gave up on Manicheism. He became a believer in God. And believing there is only ONE God, Augustine believed that this one God was not contending on an equal basis with evil. God had the upper hand. God was in control.
But I believe this idea of God as being in control of life is the final “false god”. It is the final superstition for modern people to surrender.
I know that this way of thinking about God is not the way most people think. If you’re going to believe in God, the very definition of God seems to include One Who is “in control.”
Otherwise, why be God? Why believe in God?
Some years ago, the movie Michael came out. Michael is the archangel Michael. He has become a travelling companion with two men and a woman who work for a tabloid newspaper. One of the writers has a pet dog. One day, while they’re staying at a motel, the dog gets away and runs out onto a highway. A semi kills the dog. The owner of the dog is crushed with grief. One of the other writers goes to Michael and says, “Do something!” And the writer quickly adds, “And don’t give me any of this ‘It isn’t my area.’ Either DO something, or go back to where you came from.”
THAT was honest. Either BE someone we can believe in Who has power and might, or why should we believe? Why believe in a God Who is limited just to giving us consolation?
In the movie, Michael brings the dog back to life.
In real life, however…
And yet most people still believe that God is “supreme,” and COULD do something.
Let’s look first about the concept of “control.”
The most pressing belief that the world is under “control” is–because of the NEED for it to be under control.
We have the emotional, psychological NEED. It is a well-known phenomenon that kids who are abused by their parents will still think that the parents are right. The kids will believe that the parents know what they’re doing; the adults got the world under control. This deep need for a kid’s world to seem in order results in a faithfulness to the parents that is called “fantasy bonding.”
When kids become adults, they can come around to giving up loyalty towards abusive parents. (Some as adults never DO. They will insist that their parents were ideal moms and dads. Which shows how very strong the need is for life to seem well-ordered.) But the ones who CAN break loyalty to abusive parents STILL cling to the need for life to be under control! They still engage in “fantasy bonding. Only it’s done not with parents–but with God.
Think of the reactions to a tragedy–the typical remarks made by believers:
*”Everything happens for a reason.”
*”God’s got this.” This is what Pittsburgh Pirate manager Clint Hurdle, much as I like him, said at an assembly at Franklin Regional High School near Pittsburgh after a knife-wielding student stabbed 17 kids. “God’s got this”?! I suppose the skipper meant, God has things under control–and will make things all the better. If God has such control over life, why didn’t the Almighty “get this” before the stabbings began? It seems God is always praised for repairing. Which is one step too late.
*”God only tests those He loves.” (I use the patriarchal pronoun in this portrayal of God, because that is the way they speak of God who insist that everything’s under control. They tend not to be progressive. Inclusive language they may use with regard to men & women, but not yet with regard to God. It’s “He,” “Him,” “His”…)
If this isn’t “fantasy bonding” for adults, how much clearer could it be?
Why do I think that belief in God as being “in control” of everything is a delusion? What reason is there? (Again, “reasonable” is something believers are expected to be in the 21s Century.)
Jesus is defined by–graciousness.
“Graciousness” means: taking the initiative to reach out to us. Graciousness means Jesus is eager to embrace us, not waiting for us to initiate the relationship through belief. The relationship begins on God’s initiative. This is why so many denominations baptize infants. It is the assertion that the child has no idea what’s going on, yet Jesus is already with the baby. That’s the initiative we call graciousness. If God is so eager to embrace us, and is indeed with us (even if we don’t know it yet), it is unimaginable that such an intensely loving God would “allow” the awful things to happen that happen to people.
If God is already with us in advance of anything happening, AND God is “in control,” how can these tragedies “be allowed”?
I often hear the analogy that parents have to let toddlers stumble if they want their kids to learn how to walk. Thus, God “allows” bad things to happen to us. Yeah, right. Watching a 1-year-old take a tumble on a cushy, carpeted, living-room floor is one thing. Watching a toddler disappear head-first through a large hole in the floor is something else. Imagine any adult who COULD but did NOT intervene! Yet, that’s exactly life under God.
Another characteristic of Jesus that reveals to us the nature of God is: compassion.
The Gospels show us Jesus feeling moved to action upon seeing people who are blind or lame or who have lost an only child or who have lost a sibling…Even those whom Jesus is angry at, we read that He was not only angry at them–He felt sorry for them! He had compassion for the ignorance that people lived in. (Mark 3:5)
How could Jesus so energized by compassion stand by and watch the things that happen to people?
Believers, however, KNOW all of this. But they still can’t let go of the notion that everything is under God’s control. Because–they say–it’s in the Bible.
So is cutting off the heads of non-believers, and massacring women and children and the elderly as “devotion to God”, and “curing” a boy of epilepsy by shooing away demons. All of it’s in the Bible.
The Scriptures were written in barbaric times. The writers of the Scriptures were surrounded by the practices & beliefs of barbarians. The influence can be seen in the portrayal of God.
*God as dangerous (Moses is warned not to dare even look when Yahweh passes by.)
*God as capricious (After appointing Moses to lead the Hebrew people, in the next scene God tries to kill Moses.)
*God as punishing
*God as jealous, demanding worship
These are the attributes of the gods of pagans, and these same attributes are used by biblical writers to describe–God.
This is why–by the time of Gospels–Jesus is such a completely different revelation of God that, initially, some believers couldn’t accept that this was the same God as revealed in the Old Testament. (This move to get rid of the entire Old Testament became known as the heresy of Marcion, a 2nd Century wealthy merchant.) The idea was declared a heresy because the Old Testament was accepted as essential to understanding Jesus. He was the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament prophets that God would some day be as close to people in general as formerly only to priests and prophets.
But even today, people have a difficult time explaining how Jesus can be the same in substance as the God of the Old Testament.
What helps to save the Old Testament as being indeed “biblical”–that is, belonging in the narration of God’s reaching out to humankind–is the often-condemned “liberal” interpretation of the Scriptures. Employing the “historical context” of the writings, we can explain why God is portrayed as being so barbaric. But we can also see the progress of beliefs up to the writings about gentle, sweet Jesus.
So–“it’s in the Bible” is no excuse. Beliefs about God because “that’s the way God is described in the Scriptures” is no longer reasonable. Much of what we read in the Bible about “God is in control” is from the typical barbaric notions of ancient times. “Whatever happens, the gods are behind it.”
That is no longer the lone way to believe in God TODAY. We know more about why things happen than people did in ancient times when these stories were written.
Still, people insist that “God’s in control” because of the deep need for life to SEEM under control. It’s adult “fantasy bonding.” We project onto God our need for life to seem under control. Thus, “God’s got this.”
When I served a congregation in Peoria, Illinois, one member was a woman whose adult daughter was going to work for her first day on a new job–at the Twin Towers. The daughter was happily married, had a one-year-old girl and was upbeat about heading off for her first day on the job. That first day was September 11, 2001.
That was 8 years before I arrived at that church. I don’t know what previous pastors told the mother. But I sincerely HOPE it wasn’t “everything happens for a reason” and “God only tests the ones He loves.”
Still, for some believers, the hardest thing to give up is such belief. The problem lies with our deep need for life to seem under control.
There was a belief in ancient times–held by Aristotle among others–that God created the Earth, but not from nothing. That is, the Earth already existed–the land and other elements. They were already here. God simply molded them into shape. The Earth, Aristotle believed, was pre-existent.
This seems very difficult for anybody today to believe. Because we are so used to thinking of God as starting with nothing. This is called creation “ex nihilo” (Latin, “from nothing”). After all, how could there be something already there? Didn’t EVERYTHING start with God?
The universe, for example. Didn’t it START with something? A Big Bang? How could everything already be there BEFORE God molded things into the orderly creation that we know today of planets circling the Sun?
We find it difficult wrapping our mind around a concept that something existed BEFORE God began organizing it into creation.
Because–we find it difficult to comprehend something that has no beginning. If stuff was already here when God began creating, well, where did the stuff come from? Didn’t it have a beginning?
Aristotle said, no. It always existed.
The concept is difficult for us to grasp.
But so is the idea difficult to comprehend that God can be God but still not be “in control.” What’s the use then of being God? He’d be more like a fireman, putting out disasters but unable to prevent them.
When Pope John Paul II was shot, he was hit four times. One bullet struck his left index finger; another, his right arm; and two, his lower intestine.
The Pope later claimed that the Virgin Mary–with one finger–diverted the bullets that struck his lower intestine. The bullets were thus kept away from puncturing his stomach. A bullet in the stomach often proves fatal.
Those of us who have heard this remark may have admired the Pope for many reasons, but reason itself makes us wonder about this belief. If Mary could intervene to the extent of diverting bullets which were traveling faster than the speed of the Earth hurtling around the Sun, why didn’t she act just a fraction of a second earlier and deflect the bullets entirely?
But people who scoff at belief in the Blessed Virgin are equally adamant about belief in GOD doing such things–or at last being ABLE to. The potential is there. The idea that God COULD do anything at any time is central to believing God to be “supreme”.
But what if we are adult enough finally to give up this “fantasy bonding.” We stop projecting onto God our own deep, psychological need for the world to see under control. What if we finally yield that belief?
Why? Because there is no REASON to believe it!
If Jesus is my clearest idea of God, and that means compassion and graciousness, I can not comprehend God watching as one tragedy after another happens–and completely at random. We are one day removed from Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust wasn’t random. It was deliberate. It was done with planning and execution.
Still, God did not intervene the way we would expect from a God of such compassion and might.
But what about the tragedies that ARE random? I remember a news story about a teenage boy who went up on an overpass with a Belgian block. He dropped it onto the highway. At just that moment, a car passing beneath the overpass was being driven by a young woman who was pregnant. The timing was unbelievable. The Belgian block went right through the windshield on the driver’s side. The young woman was killed instantly.
The randomness of tragedies is hard to explain if God is in control.
There is no REASON to believe that God so rules the world. Still, for many, they simply say–it’s faith. We continue hearing the platitudes: “Everything happens for a reason.” “God only tests those He loves.” “God’s got this.”
Sorry. I can’t go along. I know I’m in the minority on this matter. But I just can’t go to church and sing happy hymns about how great God is–if I believe God could have intervened when so many people are being crushed but deliberately chose not to help them.
I don’t believe that about God. I don’t believe God IS in control. Rather, I think we need to get rid of the pagan idea of God as being like a person–thinking, planning, deliberating, choosing one person to survive, choosing another not to be rescued…acting like some super PERSON would. Actually, this makes it all the more difficult to believe in such a Superman God, because Superman seemed to have more compassion than God!
For me the clearest idea of God is what Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman: “God is spirit.” (John 4:24)
I think of God as “Spirit” rather than as a person. Spirit is for real. (Anybody whose team is making a run towards the Super Bowl can FEEL spirit.) But spirit is also intangible. It is not concrete. It is silent. It CAN be ignored. And thus awful things happen.
Yet I still believe that God is supreme. How? How can God be supreme without being able at least in potential to intervene and do anything at any time?
I’ve mentioned previously that when Dwight Eisenhower was the SUPREME Allied Commander in Europe, that did not mean he had the power to make anything happen whenever he wanted.
Being SUPREME meant: Eventually, over time, good would conquer evil. As it did in World War II.
That’s how I think of God as supreme. Eventually, over time, good will overcome evil.
I don’t think of God as directing the paths of blizzards and tsunamis and tornadoes and traffic and illnesses and Super Bowl victories and all else. God does not have that kind of direct rule over life.
God’s “specialty” is relationships. Love, compassion, graciousness…this is what makes relationships, and special relationships are what give fullness to life.
Giving up belief in God as being “in control” was something I conceded long ago. Such a belief has long been identified merely as the baggage of barbarism that surrounds any description of the gods of ancient times.
Those other gods have been given up on. Atheists maintain, there’s only one more god to go.
Not for me. I believe. It’s just that in the 21st Century, with all that we know about life, REASON helps us believe more clearly. Delusion doesn’t.