I was present at a conversation recently where the question arose ‘Do you believe in God?’. Now the answer to this question usually is ‘yes’, ‘no’, or, more sophisticated, ‘I believe in God but not in organised religion’, i.e. the Church, priests, temples, and the beaurocratic lot that goes along, or ‘I believe in God, but I believe that all religions believe in the same God in different ways’.
But it is impossible to answer ‘no’ to this question and make sense – the (epistemological?) ‘do you believe in God?’ (and in what ways) does not make sense before we answer the ontological ‘what is God?’. As Voltaire says, if God didn’t exist, we would have to invent one. By definition, God is what you believe in, in whatever disguise. Voltaire’s point is that we need faith, we need something to believe in. Religious as it may sound, presupposing the existence of God (just as the question of whether you believe in God still presupposes the existence of God), in fact it cleverly points out that the question whether God exists is irrelevant. Either way people will go ahead to create faith, boundaries, moral rules, fear and hope, because we need them to function and survive. ‘Faith’ and ‘knowledge’ are defined as such by us.
You can define God any of the possible ways in which God has been defined so far – ultimate goodness, a regulating principle of the universe, a source of control and punishment or love, hope and protection. And then you can say you don’t believe in it, or that you do. Interestingly, you may say you believe in something else as the source of morality, guidance, justice or natural laws. Then this is your God. You may believe in Chance – then chance is your God. You may believe in Science and Reason – then science and reason is your God. You may believe in people, or in Mother Nature. Either way you believe in something – you believe this something exists, and you have it in the back of your mind as a resort in difficulties or as an answer to unresolved questions. Even if you say you don’t believe in anything and the only thing you rely on is yourself – then your God is yourself.
The more you push it the more difficult it is to find a way of not believing in anything. Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote ‘I don’t fear anything, I don’t hope anything, I am free’ – ‘I don’t believe in anything’ would fit nicely in this nihilistic stance (very popular on T-shirts and mugs for tourists who like the way it looks in fancy writing). But later on someone writes (was it Kazantzakis again, or someone else?) ‘If you don’t fear anything and you don’t hope anything – yes, you are free. You are free to die’.
Depressing as it may sound, we need boundaries and we need fear. And we need hope and we need to think we have guidance and support. How often is it said that the brave one is not the one who does not feel fear, but the one who conquers fear. Even pushing the boundaries, or living outside the boundaries altogether (if this is ever possible, but this has often been remarked of Great Men – and Great Women, usually after their death), you are still defined by the boundaries. How unoriginal by the way. I’m sure I have read this at ten different places. But I’m still amazed to hear intelligent people, religious and non-religious, still discussing the question ‘do you believe in God?’. If you are religious, there is no question – you have your definition of God and you have the answer. If you are an atheist or even an agnosticist – then I don’t know what you are trying to find with this question. To the friend who says ‘I believe in God because I need to’ you cannot answer ‘I don’t believe in God because I don’t need to’. Because the need is there.
Maybe we still discuss it because God (or rather, I insist, our belief in whatever we may call God) can make you do awful things to others or to yourself. But this is a matter of construction. Maybe because God can make you do wonderful things, or help you survive. But this is a matter of construction again. You can do awful or wonderful things, live or die, believing in constructs you name differently. Whether God is what you believe in, or what you believe in is God, or whether (you think that) whatever you believe in is that much different from what other people call God.
Is there an ultimate state of ‘non-believing’? I believe not. Are the differences in objects and ways of believing best accounted for by a religiousness – non-religiousness continuum? Does it matter what name we choose to appease our neediness or to tame our impulses?
Thank God I don't need to have a good answer to the Question - at least not for my PhD!