Friday, May 4, 2007

Isn't "God" Just Another Word for New Age Nonsense

It’s quite common for people have some of these views about the nature of God and the variety of religions. They will say, “Isn’t God just the energy in the universe,” or “the God I believe in is all the matter and energy in the universe. Einstein showed that all matter is energy, after all,” and “Science has shown that energy cannot be destroyed.” “Aren’t all the different religions really just different ways of expressing interest in the same underlying force or ultimate reality or energy in the world?” or “the concept of God that people use is another way of describing all the love, power, and energy that we all experience. Worshipping God should be coming to feel that love and energy and spreading it in the world. The notion of God as a person who listens to prayers and passes judgments is too anthropomorphic.”

These attempts to redefine God in a way that would allow us to reconcile what appear to be irreconcilable differences between religions, and to square what we know in science with religion have a great deal of appeal. A New Age interpretation of God appeals to those with a strong spiritual inclination and it might let them avoid the uglier side of organized religions and their histories. It might also make it possible to avoid a number of the paradoxes and philosophical difficulties (like the many detailed in this blog) that plague the traditional notions of God.

So why shouldn’t we redefine God to suit our modern needs and avoid the problems with the old one?

Here is the start of a long list of problems with taking the New Age God route:

1) The energy that spiritualists, psychic healers, and chi masters are describing is not the same energy the Einstein and modern physics study. Energy in physics is electromagnetic radiation. At lower wavelength energies we find gamma radiation and X rays. A small range of the electromagnetic spectrum is visible light (about 400-700 nanometers). And at the high wavelength end of the spectrum we find microwaves and radio waves.

2) One of the reasons that the classic, monotheistic God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent has been so influential in the history of religion is that such a being, if one exists, would be worthy of worship. If there was such a being, the implications for your life, your consciousness, your future, your relationships, and your conduct would be profound. Such a being would be worthy of study, emulation, profound respect, awe, dedication, obedience, and complete devotion. The physical force that warms up burritos in your microwave oven, or the energy the dentist uses to take pictures of your wisdom teeth is not.

3) The various religions in history very clearly do not believe that what they are doing is compatible with or the same thing as what all the others are doing. Catholics do not believe that what the Muslims are doing is just as good. Pentecostals do not believe that they are worshipping the same God as a Buddhist. And they have dedicated vast amounts of time and energy to making it very clear the ways in which they think they are different and the ways in which they think all the other practitioners are wrong. From a very high altitude, it may be possible to make vacuous claims like, “they are all really just doing the same thing.” But we have to blur the details here so much that “same” scarcely means anything at all. We can say of bacteria and of you that you both “eat.” But the differences are obviously more important than the similarities if we want to get beyond 6th grade science class.

4) While it is tempting to redefine “God” to simply mean “love,” or “spirituality,” or some other word that few people find offensive, there are more powerful reasons not to. The term “God” has a very clear set of connotations and denotations in western culture. What the three major monotheistic religious traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—agree upon and have always meant by the term is the all powerful, all knowing, and all good creator of the universe who dispenses justice on humankind. Deciding to use the term in a new way doesn’t make those associations go away. It doesn’t clarify or edify anyone who is trying to understand what God is. The billions of people in those traditions don’t understand the term in this New Age form. That’s not what they mean. And that’s not what they want the term to stand for.

5) Skeptics, agnostics, and atheists want to call a spade a spade. If you find some solace in thinking about love or spirituality, or if you think it is an admirable goal to spread love and spirituality in the world, then let’s call it that. The “God” term has baggage. It’s been the rallying cry behind pogroms, crusades, inquisitions, religious tribunals, theocracies, brutal oppression, genocide, and wars among other things. And the goals there weren’t to spread warm fuzzy ideals of love and spirituality.

6) What exactly are people’s motives for wanting to keep the term with the revisionist God-lite program? Is it a lack of courage on the atheism issue? They don’t want to go ahead and take that final step and give the term up all together? They want to have their cake and eat it too? Maybe they want to be able to keep thinking about God and feeling like they have a personal connection with something bigger and better. But here’s a problem. Inevitably, this idea, like any important ones you have, will have other implications. It will strengthen some beliefs, weaken others. It will work its way into the rest of your belief structure. It will help inform who you vote for, what you think is right and wrong, which wars you fight and which ones you refuse, and so on. No belief is an island. And one’s beliefs are never entirely disconnected from one’s actions.

7) Sure, love’s a great thing. And if more people loved each other that would be good for all of us. But I’m not detecting a carefully thought out social and political agenda here. Bumper sticker slogans don’t convince anybody of anything. Vapid truisms about love, God, and energy won’t help any of us deal with the very real menace of supernatural thinking, religious fundamentalism, and theocratic political agendas that pose a serious threat to our lives, our freedom, and our future. By refusing to take the problem of God seriously, you’re facilitating those people who think that God told them to strap on a bomb and blow up a bus, or the ones who think that evangelical Christianity needs to be imposed on everyone on the globe, or the ones who are trying to exacerbate the hostilities between Jews and Palestinians in Israel in order to hasten the coming of the Apocalypse and Judgment Day.

So now, what was seeming like a harmless little personal indulgence is looking like yet another belief that you need to earn. You need to answer questions for yourself and for the rest of us (since you are living in our neighborhoods, voting for our politicians, putting people on our school board, having my kids over for a sleep over with your kids…..) about what exactly is it you believe and why. Do you really think that electromagnetic radiation, like the kind that beams reruns of “Three’s Company” into your TV is worthy of the attention and concern that the rest of us give to the term “God”?


Jon said...

I know people who have told me that they do not believe in God (the Christian/Islamic one), but at the same time cringe when I tell them their atheists. They deny it - stating that their spiritual. Even if they are spiritual and believe in some energy that governs the universe in either a naturalistic or supurnaturalistic view, they still should consider themselves atheists in order to be honest and not chicken $#!+. Don't rename apples - oranges.

Anonymous said...

So, MM, after reading this blog I now realize that I've been having a religious experience whenever I blow up chili in the microwave--amen brother!

Seriously now, I think one of the reasons people have a hard time giving up the word or concept "god" is because they are so programmed with it.

I mean, we are raised hearing the word "god" so often we even have to say it during sex.

Of course orgasms are as close to "god" anyone is likely to get.

But your theory is quite correct: People are trying to have it both ways.

They want "god" without all the..."god."

They want to ignore the baggage--they want to forget all the history and live happily ever after in their little solipsistic hippy-colored wanderlust.

Our problem, MM, is that we expect people to think, and for far too many that really may not be possible.

Free will, if it exists, and I think it does, isn't a universal phenomenon.

Just ask the schizophrenic or the fundamentalist.