Please Tell Me What “God” Means

Via 3quarksdaily, here is Richard Skinner (“poet, writer, qualified therapist and performer”) elaborating on Why Christians should take Richard Dawkins seriously. I would argue that they should take him seriously because much of what he says is true, but that’s not Skinner’s take.

Skinner suggests that Dawkins is arguing against a straw-man notion of God (stop me if you’ve heard this before). According to the straw man, God is some thing, or some person, or some something, of an essentially supernatural character, with a lot of influence over what happens in the universe, and in particular the ability to sidestep the laws of nature to which the rest of us are beholden. That’s a hopelessly simplistic and unsophisticated notion, apparently; not at all what careful theologians actually have in mind.

Nevertheless, Dawkins and his defenders typically reply, it’s precisely the notion of God that nearly all non-theologians — that is to say, the overwhelming majority of religious believers, at least in the Western world — actually believe in. Not just the most fanatic fundamentalists; that’s the God that the average person is worshipping in Church on Sunday. And, to his credit, Skinner grants this point. That, apparently, is why Christians should take Dawkins seriously — because all too often even thoughtful Christians take the easy way out, and conceptualize God as something much more tangible than He really is.

At this point, an optimist would hope to be informed, in precise language, exactly what “God” really does mean to the sophisticated believer. Something better than Terry Eagleton’s “the condition of possibility.” But no! We more or less get exactly that:

Philosophers and theologians over the centuries, grappling with what is meant by ‘God’, have resorted to a different type of language, making statements such as “God is ultimate reality”; or “God is the ground of our being”, or “God is the precondition that anything at all could exist”, and so forth. In theological discourse, they can be very helpful concepts, but the trouble with them is that if you’re not a philosopher or theologian, you feel your eyes glazing over – God has become a philosophical concept rather than a living presence.

The trouble is not that such sophisticated formulations make our eyes glaze over; the trouble is that they don’t mean anything. And I will tell you precisely what I mean by that. Consider two possible views of reality. One view, “atheism,” is completely materialistic — it describes reality as just a bunch of stuff obeying some equations, for as long as the universe exists, and that’s absolutely all there is. In the other view, God exists. What I would like to know is: what is the difference? What is the meaningful, operational, this-is-why-I-should-care difference between being a sophisticated believer and just being an atheist?

I can imagine two possibilities. One is that you sincerely can’t imagine a universe without the existence of God; that God is a logical necessity. But I have no trouble imagining a universe that exists all by itself, just obeying the laws of nature. So I would have to conclude, in that case, that you were simply attaching the meaningless label “God” to some other aspect of the universe, such as the fact that it exists. The other possibility is that there is actually some difference between the universe-with-God and the materialist universe. So what is it? How could I tell? What is it about the existence of God that has some effect on the universe? I’m not trying to spring some sort of logical trap; I sincerely want to know. Phrases like “God is ultimate reality” are either tautological or meaningless; I would like to have a specific, clear understanding of what it means to believe in God in the sophisticated non-straw-man sense.

Richard Skinner doesn’t give us that. In fact, he takes precisely the opposite lesson from these considerations: the correct tack for believers is to refuse to say what they mean by “God”!

So, if our understanding of God can be encapsulated in a nice, neat definition; a nice, neat God hypothesis; a nice, neat image; a nice, neat set of instructions – if, in other words, our understanding of God does approximate to a Dawkins version, then we are in danger of creating another golden calf. The alternative, the non-golden-calf route, is to sit light to definitions, hypotheses and images, and allow God to be God.

It’s a strategy, I suppose. Not an intellectually honest one, but one that can help you wriggle out of a lot of uncomfortable debates.

I’m a big believer that good-faith disagreements focus on the strong arguments of the opposite side, rather than setting up straw men. So please let me in on the non-straw-man position. If anyone can tell me once and for all what the correct and precise and sophisticated and non-vacuous meaning of “God” is, I promise to stick to disbelieving in that rather than any straw men.

Update: This discussion has done an even better job than I had anticipated in confirming my belief that the “sophisticated” notion of God is simply a category mistake. Some people clearly think of God in a way perfectly consistent with the supposed Dawkinsian straw man, which is fine on its own terms. Others take refuge in the Skinneresque stance that we can’t say what we mean when we talk about God, which I continue to think is simply intellectually dishonest.

The only on-topic replies I can see that don’t fall into either of those camps are ones that point to some feature of the world which would exist just as well in a purely materialistic conception, and say “I call that `God.'” To which I can only reply, you’re welcome to call it whatever you like, but it makes no difference whatsoever. Might as well just admit that you’re an atheist.

Which some people do, of course. I once invited as a guest speaker Father William Buckley, a Jesuit priest who is one of the world’s experts in the history of atheism. After giving an interesting talk on the spirituality of contemplation, he said to me “You don’t think I believe in G-O-D `God,’ do you?” I confessed that I had, but now I know better.

For people in this camp, I think their real mistake is to take a stance or feeling they have toward the world and interpret in conventionally religious language. Letting all that go is both more philosophically precise and ultimately more liberating.

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287 Responses to Please Tell Me What “God” Means

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    Skinner’s Theorem:

    God has infinite Kolmogorov complexity.

  2. BlogReader says:

    I looked up the Terry Eagleton mentioned in the blog and found his article on Dawkins book. Pretty painful to read.

    The first part of it rests on Terry’s believe that Dawkins’ hasn’t read anything by Christian authors. What if he has? It is a rather poor line of argument.

    Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in.

    Well, what is it then? Oh wait he does respond:

    He [ God ] is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

    Whatever it is he’s smoking I want some. Dude, like God’s the matter AND the anti-matter at the same time! Don’t bogart that joint!

    He is what sustains all things in being by his love

    I thought food and sunlight did that. Well what do I know as I haven’t read some obscure Christian authors.

    The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals.

    The trouble is they are reading the same book and seeing their own message in there and can “prove” it to be true. This is unlike a math book, for example, where you can’t go all crazy and expect anyone to take you seriously. This is all because religion forces you to give up your rational mind and rely on faith — you can’t suddenly say “but I want to be a rational one!” as you’ve already given up that right by getting in with these people.

  3. tacitus says:

    I don’t think I have come across one. For most non-fundamentalists, defining God is like trying to put their finger on top of a blob of goo without it oozing out on all sides. They just can’t pin it down.

    Witness Alistair McGrath’s efforts when debating Christopher Hitchens just the other week. Here is a well respected theologian who has written numerous books about God and religion, and yet when challenged to define what God was to him, did nothing but waffle.

  4. The problem is that, from the perspective of mystics and many theologians, asking for a precise definition of God from a human being is like asking a mitochondrion for a precise definition of a human being.

    When people misuse religious language and treat it as literal statements of fact rather than myth and metaphor, they get criticized, and rightly so. Why would you also criticize those who are attempting to argue that such language is a way of pointing to transcendence and mystery rather than a description?

    I say more about what I, as a religion scholar but also a person of faith, understand “God” to mean on my blog in more than one place – for instance, at

  5. Tiago Nunes says:

    BELIEVE in something doesn’t mean that it needs to have any meaning, it’s just the act and it don’t need comprehesion. I don’t care if god exists or what is god, the only thing I know is that i’ll have a tomorrow till the day I day, with or without god. So I prefer the ‘agnostic way’

  6. Sean says:

    James, how would things be different if God didn’t exist?

  7. mogmich says:

    You say that atheism is completely materialistic, and describes reality as just a bunch of stuff obeying some equations…

    Question: Where exactly does that place your own consciousness?

    Isn’t the reality you are talking about, an external reality – external to your own consciousness?

    If you say that consciousness is “only some physical processes in the brain” I find it self-evident that this is not true.

    And another thing: Atheism is not necessarily materialistic (e.g. Buddhism).

  8. Terry says:

    Sean, If God didn’t exist, I would think that people who believe that God Exists would say, there would be no existence. That’s how things would be different. Wow!

  9. Neil B. says:

    Sean, why is the question of “how things would be different” necessarily the question that matters? It depends on whether that’s what matters to you. I care about whether there is something “more” behind the universe, and so it is meaningful to me aside from whether things would happen differently here. It is hard to be sure what that would be, that isn’t intellectual dishonesty. If you want to think about those kind of issues, then it just isn’t easy to get a handle on it. Consider the arguments about what the wave function is, how it “collapses” etc. You can ignore the “ultimate reality” question about that if you want, and shut up and calculate. But if you do want to think about it, it is not easy to get a handle on that great smoky dragon. (PS: decoherence schemes don’t explain it away, just consider the basic collapse of a single photon wave function somewhere on a spherical shell. For even more fun, consider the Renninger negative result of non-detection on say a half-shell inside the main shell: then, the WF must redistribute (?!) because now it can’t hit in the shadowed part of the outer sphere. And then, what do unreliable detectors do to wave functions?)

    You talk about it being acceptable to think, this universe just here with its laws etc., but that is avoiding the questions of why this and not something a little or a lot different, why just curiously friendly to living beings, what is logically necessary and self-sufficient, whether “existing” is even a meaningful distinction and if so, can you define it non-circularly (or, in formal logical terms not referring to mathematical type existence: our world distinct from other describable “logically possible worlds” that allegedly do not have this “property” of “existence”, etc. This is the Modal realism argument – the cute irony is that although “materialists” claim the mantle of supreme rationality, “material” is not a formally definable entity in the logical universe! You can’t use logic to tell us the difference between our world and a “platonic” description of some other configuration and behavior. For all the talk about how you can’t pin “God” down, you can’t pin “this” down except that we experience it.) Check back over the previous “Why is there something rather than nothing” etc. In addition, we have the multiple universe question, and once we admit some multiplicity, what is to circumscribe the scope of that? (I am not a modal realist, but use it as a challenge to show the contradictions in “rational materialism.”

    There may even be a real “consequence.” Materialists tend to scoff at ideas of personal survival, falsely and crudely thinking that depends on some kind of “stuff” inside us that escapes like a gas. But, we don’t consider “programs” to die just because the computer they first (or later) ran on is destroyed. If the same thing happens somewhere else, the program “lives again.” Again, the irony: materialists like to consider “the mind” as a program not a mystical stuff, but then don’t usually (except for Bart Kosko, Frank Tipler who is really a modal realist, and a few) consider this sort of possibility. If there is a suitable multiverse, the process of a person or etc. could “run” again and they could experience again. It doesn’t even have to be what we formally consider information – leaving room for qualia and etc. (Our formulating such concepts do not give them inherent powers of circumscription and self-containment.) I consider “god” to be something which organizes the multiverse could be organized well enough to have that established. I also think it is why our laws are life friendly – for the literal purpose of having beings to exist. (why else? can you explain it) I can’t prove that, sure, it is philosophy and not science. But talking about what science is and what we can know or should try to know, what is meaningful or not and why, etc. – that’s philosophy to. You just can’t escape it. You have to practice metaphysics to argue against it (or anything it postulates.)

  10. John Merryman says:

    The problem with the conventional view of god described above, is that it amounts to an example of Plato’s Ideal Forms, as applied to the individual soul. That we are imperfect examples of an ideal from which we have fallen.
    The problem with this logic is that the absolute is basis, not apex. So the spiritual absolute would be the essense of out of which we rise, not a model of perfection from which we fell.

    Consciousness is bottom up emergent phenomena, while intellect is top down ordering of context. Good and bad are not a dual between forces of light and dark, but the biological binary code and the intellect rises out of emotion when yes and no are abstracted from good and bad. A god of aspiration, not intention. The journey, not the destination.

    At what level does biology begin to manifest consciousness. Are athletes, who have pushed their responses to the very edge of reactive impulse, conscious? If so, how different is this from animals, if not even insects? The fact is there is no way to determine just how far down into biology some sense of awareness exists. Rather then a byproduct of the central nervous system, it may be the operating principle.

    Here is a related argument; What is time? Consider; If two atoms collide, it creates an event in time. While the atoms proceed through this event and on to others, the event goes the other way. First it is in the future, then in the past. This relationship prevails at every level of complexity. The rotation of the earth, relative to the radiation of the sun, goes from past events to future ones, while the units of time/days go from being in the future to being in the past. To the hands of the clock, the face goes counterclockwise.

    So which is the real direction? If time is a fundamental dimension, then physical reality proceeds along it, from past events to future ones. On the other hand, if time is a consequence of motion, then physical reality is simply energy in space and the events created go from being in the future to being in the past. Just as the sun appears to go from east to west, when the reality is the earth rotates west to east.

    Since energy is just moving around, previous information is constantly being recycled by and giving structure to the present, as the energy by which it is recorded continues on its path. Rather then the straight line of a dimension, time is a loop, where the new is being woven out of strands pulled from the past.

    Time as consequence of motion means it has more in common with temperature, then space, which is not intuitive, but it is logical, as they are both descriptions of and methods for measuring motion. The brain of insects have been described as thermometers. On the other hand, our minds are mostly a function of narrative.

    One of the many anomalies of modern physics is that quantum uncertainty seemingly leads to multiple realities, but if it is information going from future to past, then it is the wave of future potential collapsing into the order of the past.

    Using time as a dimension is like dissecting an organism. It lays everything out there for you to look at and poke and examine, but it’s rather lifeless.

    To the extent time isn’t a real dimension, biological beingness is primarily a function of the present and secondarily a function of the individual. The elemental biological awareness is attached to the energy and moves toward the future, but our intellectual comprehension is information that is constantly receding into the past. Ultimately we are cells of a larger organism that is constantly moving on to the next generation and shedding the old like dead skin. It is our individual lives that start in the future and end up in the past.

  11. VanceH says:

    I like your post. It has a crispness usually not found in these sorts of discussions. You ask for a “meaning” of God. To me this is like asking for the meaning of a proton. A proton is or it isn’t—I don’t think it has a meaning. On the other hand, what God means to us as individuals I think is a very good question.
    Sean, when you make a tough decision, one that impacts your life and others I’d be surprised if you didn’t carefully weigh the data and the options. Often that final decision is not an easy one, but I suspect you’re careful and respectful in the process. For me that decision process has the added dimension that I believe God will guide me, if I listen, to make the best decision. I think that the physical realm and the spiritual realm are essentially orthogonal and non-interacting except for this one intimate point of contact. When I wrestle with issues of right and wrong I think it is an advantage to have access to the ultimate authority

  12. Sean says:

    How do I tell the difference between God guiding my decision and me simply contemplating the circumstances and deciding by myself?

  13. Pseudonym says:

    This article (the one by Skinner, that is) confirms once again for me that a lot of Serious Theologians are really Deists, and just don’t realise it yet.

  14. VanceH says:

    Sean, before I attempt to answer your question. Do you agree that this is an alternate view of reality that offers a meaningful difference?
    Regarding telling the difference I don’t think there is an analytical way to tell the difference. I think this sort of differential analysis is outside the intimate point of contact I talk about. Personally it can be pretty obvious when I disregard God
    I think most Christians really want some sort of proof that they are tapped into God (hence ID movement etc.). But I think God asks for the belief without proof (kind-of axiomatic)–and we have to embrace the risk we have massively deluded ourselves

  15. Sean says:

    I can’t agree that the difference is meaningful until you tell me what it is. If you can’t tell me what it is, then I don’t think it’s meaningful.

    “Proof” is beside the point, as nobody is asking for any.

  16. Sam Gralla says:

    Hi Sean,

    People believe in God because of personal experiences and revelation. That is, they have a “personal experience”, and then there exists an infrastructure to tell them that the experience they had is the God of such and such revelatory text talking to them. Having made that connection, you don’t need a definition of God. Even though you don’t know what he is, you know he exists because he said he exists (in scripture). If you’re a philosopher you might try to make up a definition, but in the end its impossible. If you ever end up believing in God, it won’t be from a logical argument.


  17. VanceH says:

    Ok, point taken. The difference is that God’s insight/perspective on any topic is dramatically better than mine. An alternative selected that is aligned with God’s input is going to result in higher overall good (from a totally holistic standpoint).

  18. Graeme says:

    What I believe “God” to be (and there’s no point in arguing it, because there is no evidence proving God’s existence or God’s non-existence) is a consciousness that exists beyond the boundaries of matter and energy. And I don’t mean beyond as in past the outer edge of the universe, I mean beyond in a way that the human mind can’t possibly comprehend. (Such as in a 4th or 5th dimension that we only exist on one plane of. There have been other explanations of that which are far better than what I can come up with, so just look it up.) Now as far as God interfering with our 3-dimensional surroundings, I don’t believe in inexplicable events and the reversal of death (re: Jesus), but I can accept changes to our universe by outside forces in higher dimensions.

    That’s what I believe God to *be*. But what He means? God means different things to different people. And there’s no changing that. If there was, then we’d all be identical people, because a person’s opinions and entire existence are changed by events that they experiences, and those experiences change what anything will mean to them.

    Now, the reason that you can’t prove or disprove God’s existence is really quite simple. You can’t test what you can’t perceive. If you can’t sense God with any of your six senses (smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight or proprioception (equilibrium or spatial orientation)) then how can you say for sure if He’s there or not? We can’t.

    And once we all drop the issue and accept that we’re all gonna be different, no matter the fuck what, then we can start along the path to not bloody arguing over pointless crap that you won’t know the answer to until you die. And we can start getting along as a society, hell even a world. (Sorry, went off a little there. But it’s all good, because we’re all different, and we’ve all got our flaws, and everything.)

  19. Graeme says:

    Oh, and if anyone wants to talk to me about what I said… I just Stumbled this page and probably won’t be visiting back again. If you really, really want to talk about it contact me somehow…

  20. Sean says:

    I am not looking for reasons why people do or do not believe in God. I want to know what it means. What is the difference between “God exists” and “God does not exist”? To the world, not just to my belief.

  21. Jason Dick says:

    I would have to say that I’ve asked for the exact same thing from theists in the past. And I’ve never gotten a good answer. Remember that you answer must have this property:

    We use the term “God” to describe a being which is (such and such). Due to this description, it is necessarily the case that (such and such) can be observed, or (such and such) cannot be observed, if God exists.

    For example, a valid answer (though a poor one) would be to say:

    God is a being who gives us eternal life in response to how we handle our lives here on Earth. As a result, when we die we will go to either heaven or hell. This will necessarily be different from a universe in which God does not exist.

    This is the sort of response that I would like to see (and I would hazard to guess that Sean would as well). But the problem with this response is that it isn’t really testable, because we can’t come back after death. So, what specific thing would be different in a universe without God as compared to one with God? What thing that we could look at or feel would be different?

  22. Ralph Giles says:

    To elaborate on Sam@16, I think of God is a story we tell ourselves about some of our conscious experiences. So the difference between a universe with a God and a universe without is exactly whether the stories someone is telling about their experience include the word God (and associated mythology) or if the stories include some other words…which is to say ‘none’, in the sense Sean means. It’s a narrative thing, not a literal thing.

    That’s the objective difference, at least with the sort of belief that’s being discussed here. That so many insist that it is a literal thing is because that’s part of the story for most people, theologians and non-theologians alike based on the arguments I’ve seen over Dawkin’s book.

    It’s a deeply conforting story to most of the believers I’ve spoken too. Sean, perhaps that comfort is the strawman you’ve been attacking?

  23. John Baez says:

    “God” means many things to many people. But to me – just me – “god” is a desperate attempt to take the awesome inexhaustible mystery of the universe – the fact that the deeper you go in any direction, the more you find – the blinding beauty and heart-rending tragedy of it all – and package it into a kind of “thing”.

    In my work I often experience this sense of awesomeness, of depths that pass beyond my understanding – in fact, that’s what I live for. But I don’t find it helpful to package it into a “thing”. After all, this strange “thing” can’t be a normal sort of thing in the universe, so it’s easy to conclude it’s either in some other universe (say, “heaven”), or doesn’t exist at all, or exists in some very tricky sense. But all these alternatives are just distractions, as far as I’m concerned.

    So for me, saying that god “does not exist” is just as silly as saying that god “does exist”. They both take me further from the mystery of the universe into the realm of petty squabbles.

    But, if we imagine that certain – not all – people talking about “god” are actually trying to convey an experience of the hair-raising awesomeness of reality, its shattering majesty, some things they say might make more sense. To take a few examples just from Christian theology:

    No one has seen or can see God. (John 1.18)

    He lives in unapproachable light. (1 Timothy 6:16)

    The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this—in seeing that He is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility. (Gregory of Nyssa)

    God is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. (John of Damascus)

  24. I’m approaching this from the perspective of panentheism, since it doesn’t seem to make sense to me to separate God from everything else and make “him” just one being among many. For me, the question is not “does God exist” because I am talking about all of reality in its highest level of transcendence and organization. If God is being itself rather than a being, then there is no real doubt that being exists. The question is about the character of this all-encompassing reality.

    Since we’re talking about a reality that transcends us, we use metaphors and symbols. One analogy that I’ve used before is of two cells in a human body having a conversation. One says “I look around and there is nothing but cells. We’re born, we die, that’s it”. The other says “sometimes I think we’re all part of one big cell”. The latter is being ‘cellulomorphic’ (rather than anthropomorphic, we tend to be), but isn’t it also intuiting something that is in a genuine sense a correct perception of the nature of its existence, even though it cannot describe that transcendant reality adequately?

  25. Chris W. says:

    Here’s the difference between “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist”. People sometimes have out-of-body experiences. This could only happen if God exists.

    Oops, maybe not